BWW Review: AUSTENTATIOUS, Fortune Theatre
Some shows might transfer or extend their run. The cast of Austentatious, however, have embarked upon an entire season's residency at the Fortune Theatre, and might thereby hope to introduce their improvised "Jane Austen novels" to much of London's theatrical society. Their prospects seem favourable.
Much of this show's tone is in its title. It is quite ostentatious to pun on ostentatious - but this nod towards the erudite and the ten pound note's beloved literary queen, Jane Austen, is just a nod of formality before the general games commence.
Although audience members who do know Austen's work might get a kick out of certain references, that knowledge is by no means necessary. Even a passing acquaintance with the bit where Mr Darcy dives into a lake will guarantee a few extra laughs, and the bulk of the show's appeal comes from its delightful and surreal meanderings from the sensible - and sometimes from sense. This show is silly.
In typical impro style, the company begin by extricating a title from their audience. Generally punny, these are revisited later in the show and there is also a page devoted to past titles on the company's website.
The complimentary programmes double up as flyers, in the style of vintage Penguin paperbacks, on which to write suggested titles. There is a real sense of anticipation in this ritual, from the audience and cast alike; the company have nailed both audience interaction and situating their show within a charmingly, not-too-specific, bygone setting.
"Dr Sam Patton", an Austen-esque caricature of an academic (played with delightful weirdness by Graham Dickson) makes some great references to the Fortune Theatre's usual ghostly occupants before explaining that, although Austen is known for writing just six novels, she in fact wrote some 60-something works.
The audiences contribute to this discussion with their suggested "lost Jane Austen titles" - and then a group of well-educated adults, clad in beautiful, opulent costumes, spend the next two hours performing something like Maid in Chelsea: Strumpet in Brixton. Other past hits include Eminemma and Queer Eye for the Regency Guy.
Much of the story is wholly silly, but lent wit from the fact that even the ridiculous comes from a very knowing place. Dialogue is generally delivered in the diction of bonnets and gentle perambulation, when no one but a servant had a regional accent.
All is quite charming - so when Cariad Lloyd decide, last night, to start the show with some salacious dancing and eventually called Nils Roberts' character a "dick'ead", these choices did not seem crude, but a farcical break from the established norms of the frock drama.
Austentatious sort of stays within this Regency theme, whilst knowingly commenting on it. The cast are some of the nation's best improvisers, who excel individually within comedy's wider fields; their efforts are hugely impressive and well-practiced. Certain tropes are nodded towards, yet seized upon and pastiched, even as they are embraced. Like the long 18th-century's romance: in last night's venture, Rachel Parris engaged in some heroic chivalry as she rescued Graham Dickson from the murky depths of Slough.
There was also some wonderful commentary on reality television and its impact on comedy as a whole, and some particularly clever parodying of the genre by Charlotte Gittins. Cariad Lloyd also deserves praise for her whole-hearted leaps into whatever style was at hand. Her rap sequence was especially impressive - not least because she found opportunity within this show for a rap sequence.
It seems wrong to highlight single performers, though. Perhaps part of improvisation's current popularity is rooted in its deeply collaborative nature, even if that sometimes involved the cast gleefully flinging one another into the deep end.
They are all formidably quick and their playful concept produced a ludicrous and wonderful piece of theatre. Improvisation's vast scope for audience and cast interchange is fulfilled. Characters, relationships, plots, farce and highbrow banter unfold spontaneously - and it is so exciting to watch.
The only downside was the sound quality - several lines were lost beneath the audience's laughter. The improvised violin accompaniment, although otherwise impressive and stylistically apt, might also need rebalancing. To be heard in the "pastoral idyll of Brixton", it might be necessary to use microphones.
But this sound issue barely detracts. Austentatious is hugely clever and utterly enjoyable. It's easy to see how this meta-theatrical playground of pretty dresses and limitless (mimed) props has gained such popularity. Its sophisticated satire and more simple fun gives it a wide audience, and its nightly changing titles one repeat one. I highly recommend you join them.
Photo credit: Richard Davenport