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BWW Review: PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, Bromley Churchill Theatre, 22 September 2016

Pride and Prejudice comes with a lot of baggage - a lot, one might say, of pride and prejudice. There's the pride in the author's extraordinary wit and wisdom, echoing across the centuries, as fresh now as the day it was written by Jane Austen's youthful hand - very much a woman succeeding (eventually) in a man's world. There's prejudice too, as many will remember the novel's status as a set text in schools, or recall numerous screen adaptations, notably Colin Firth's gleaming torso in the BBC's iconic Nineties version.

So, it's no easy matter to carve out a Pride and Prejudice with a voice of its own. But this production, adapted by Simon Reade, directed by Deborah Bruce and first performed at the Regent's Park Theatre, just about fulfils that brief, and will delight those coming to the famous tale of the five unmarried daughters for the first time or for the 101st time.

Mrs Bennett, Felicity Montagu in fishwife mode, gets the famous "man with a fortune" line out of the way early on, and we're into the serious business of how she's going to pull off a nap hand in finding five suitable husbands for five very different charges. There's an excellent essay by Zoe Williams in the programme that elaborates on just how high the stakes were for women in the early 19th century - defined, as they were, entirely by their matches with men who themselves were often hemmed in by social norms, laws of inheritance and capricious wills. Though Mrs Bennett suffers from nervous palpitations and can be a bit of drama queen, her anxieties are well-founded.

Balancing off those period concerns, Tafline Steen gives us a very modern Elizabeth, a woman who knows her quick mind and whose manner is informed by a 21st-century sensibility. Such anachronisms can jar, but that is not the case here, as Elizabeth was written as a protofeminist, in attitude if not in estate - I suspect Ms Austen would have liked this portrayal very much.

Benjamin Dilloway's Darcy is literally superior, towering over most of the cast, aloof and aloft. Played with such lack of empathy for others that I wondered if we were to assume Darcy had a mild form of Aspberger's Syndrome (a suggestion made in more than one analysis of the text), I didn't feel the necessary charisma shone out of the man, even after his conversion to more demonstrative decency as his love for Elizabeth grows. He glowered well though and pretty much defined the strong and silent type.

That said, there are some splendid turns elsewhere. Steven Meo is appallingly obsequious and rude as the fawning clergyman, Mr Collins, and he's matched in oily unpleasantness by his benefactress, Lady Catherine De Bourgh, a magnificently pompous Dona Croll. Kirsty Rider looks down her elegant nose at everyone as the snobbish Miss Bingley, and I liked Daniel Abbott as the caddish, handsome, trouble-coming-a-mile-off, soldier-boy Wickham.

Matthew Kelly holds it all together, a still centre in this whirligig of emotions (a psychological roundabout reflected in Max Jones's excellent use of the revolve stage) and, late on, just when you think he's been underused, delivers a remarkably poignant speech to Elizabeth about how married life can fail even the most reasonable of men.

Perhaps the best recommendation for this production is that it made me want to return to a novel I read once as a teenager, again as a twentysomething lad-about-town, and will encounter again with the dubious wisdom of middle age. Jane Austen was gone at 41, but her acute eye saw more of the faults and foibles of men and women in that brief life, which she then captured with the driest of wit, than most people see in three score years and ten. No wonder people still read her now and (as this Elizabeth might say) LOL.

Pride and Prejudice is at the Bromley Churchill Theatre until 24 September and on tour.

Photo Simon Turtle.

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From This Author Gary Naylor