“I suppose his…fortune had some bearing”
The choice to adapt Jane Austen’s endlessly popular novel Pride and Prejudice for the stage, as Simon Reade as done for this version at Regents Park’s Open Air Theatre, may well be one universally acknowledged as a good business decision. And whilst it may naturally lose some of the linguistic acuity that characterises the best of Austen’s work and provide a stately and solid, rather than superlative, piece of theatre, Deborah Bruce’s production has an undeniable elegance and a rather irresistible charm that many may find hard to resist.
There are few surprises in Reade’s adaptation apart from the skill with which he has compressed and filleted the story, so that it keeps an entirely recognisable shape, populated by all the well-loved characters doing what they do best, over the 2 and three quarter hour running time. Daughters of a country gentleman who hasn’t quite kept up his responsibilities to them and a mother all-too-keen to sort them our, the five Bennett sisters find themselves in need of securing their position in society in the only way they can, through marriage.
And so we see the ever-pleasant Jane falling for the handsomely dopey Mr Bingley, Yolanda Kettle and Rob Heaps excellently matched in cutesy awkwardness; Eleanor Thorn as the headstrong young Lydia jumping at the first dashing man in uniform she can snare, Barnaby Sax’s Mr Wickham; Leah Brotherhead giving the bookish Mary a wonderfully portentous voice as she seems destined to become a spinster of the parish; and Imogen Byron’s Kitty lost somewhere in the middle. Timothy Walker’s Mr Bennett delivers a bon mot here and there but would much rather be sequestered in his study and Rebecca Lacey’s Mrs Bennett hustles and bustles with much melodramatic flair.
But at the heart of the story is second-oldest Elizabeth, and her famous love/hate (or should that be hate/love?) relationship with the brooding Mr Darcy. In a startling assured debut, Jennifer Kirby slips wonderfully into the spirited self-assuredness of Lizzy and partnered with David Oakes’ stiffly mannered gentleman, they make a most appealing couple indeed, their verbal tussles criss-crossing the wide stage with electricity, their emotion filling the auditorium with heart. Whether fending off the social concerns of Jane Asher’s fabulously haughty Lady Catherine De Bourgh or the amorous intentions of Ed Birch’s simply hilarious Mr Collins – has ever a man’s limbs looked more like a daddy long legs’?! – this productions well establishes its own identity.
Max Jones’ ingeniously simple wrought-iron design, atop a revolving stage, allows for cannily effective switches between the various stately homes of the story. And Siân Williams’ delightful choreography enlivens the numerous dances and balls, providing one of the sweetest moments of the show as the world slowly comes to a halt as Lizzy and Darcy have one of their first significant connections, and also one of the funniest, with Mr Collins naturally, as he tries to interject into a dancing foursome.
Reade’s adaptation makes clever use of letters read aloud to throw out nuggets of key information, but he also overextends a few scenes, especially in the second half. Lady Catherine’s interrogation of Lizzy drags on too much and a quiet têtê-à-têtê with her father strikes a strangely discordant note as he lays bear the truth of his own marriage with a candour which feels both incorrect and at odds with this show. But otherwise, there’s much to commend this elegant swish through a most-loved story.