BWW Review: PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, Theatre Royal Bath
Premiering in 2013 at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre and following a sell out revival in 2016, Simon Reade's production of Jane Austen's beloved novel directed by Deborah Bruce has headed out on a UK tour.
In its current home of the gorgeous Theatre Royal Bath, one can sense why this version continues to be such a success: it's sophisticated, witty and unashamedly charming.
Mrs Bennett delights in the prospect of having her five daughters married off to suitable prospects, and will stop at nothing until she has achieved her aim. For second-eldest daughter Elizabeth, determinedly uninterested in romantic pursuits, an encounter with the cold, proud Mr Darcy only affirms this philosophy. In Elizabeth, however, it seems Mr Darcy has unwittingly met his match...
Max Jones's set design is simple yet wonderfully effective. It features a piano in one corner along with a few pieces of furniture, placed differently depending on where the characters find themselves: the Bennets' home Longbourn, Bingley's estate Netherfield Park, Mr Darcy's residence Pemberley, or beyond. Sometimes, there are other subtle additions like candelabras, distinguishing each place from the other.
The most striking element, however, is the wrought-iron frame that surrounds the stage, almost like scaffolding. It sees characters run from top to bottom of stairs, survey action down below, and so on. When coupled with the revolving stage, it allows for a whole new dimension of movement and depth which keeps the action moving along briskly.
Composer Lillian Henley's music deftly manages to change the atmosphere from light and playful to moody, tense and every shade in between, and the movement complements the score well, especially during ball scenes. Often the stage can be busy, but slick, assured movement direction by Sian Williams allows for the eye to hone in on finer detail and still appreciate the scene as a whole.
Deborah Bruce's direction undoubtedly favours the humour and absurdity of the situation these characters find themselves in; sometimes perhaps a little too much. As such, you lose a little of the power and sharpness of observation that colours Austen's writing when some of the most famous speeches are delivered at full pelt. Yet, what this approach allows for is a wonderfully detailed study of character in terms of nuances in body language and facial expressions. Rarely have I seen a cast so wonderfully adept at saying so much without actually having to speak a word.
Nowhere is this quality more apparent than in Felicity Montagu's larger-than-life Mrs Bennet, whose gift for comedy seemingly knows no bounds. Appreciative audience laughter followed her from scene to scene (sometimes in quickfire succession in the space of mere moments) and she often had to do little more than the perfect placing of a raised eyebrow, or give her husband a not so subtle cue to contribute to the conversation at dinner.
She is joined by Matthew Kelly as Mr Bennet, whose more understated portrayal balances things out well. Exchanges between the two are sometimes when the humour can get a little too overwhelming, but they are easily forgiven because they are such a likeable pairing.
Tafline Steen is a wonderfully feisty and spirited Elizabeth, her journey towards wisdom driving the narrative. Elizabeth's exchanges with her sisters, especially Jane (Hollie Edwin) are full of warmth, charm and grace, and the bond of sisterhood is believable and always engaging.
Anna Crichlow as the loveable Kitty, the flirtatious Lydia (Mari Izzard) and the solemn rarely spoken Mary (Leigh Quinn) complete the Bennet sisters. Each actress manages to stand out individually as well as together, providing their own unique quirks, even though Kitty and Mary somewhat fall by the wayside in the story as a whole.
The talented ladies are complemented by equally strong men in the cast. There's a likeable, easygoing quality to Jordan Mifsúd's Mr Bingley, and a riotously ridiculous Mr Collins from Steven Meo. Not forgetting of course Benjamin Dilloway, who brings a steely charisma and authority to Mr Darcy, balancing this with an awkward and endearing tenderness that reveals itself slowly, teasingly, enough to make the character development realistic and more than worth investing interest in. Dilloway and Steen's Elizabeth are a fine match and their chemistry fizzes.
Translating from page to stage is no easy task, but this production allows us to look at a classic in a refreshing, thoroughly enjoyable light.
Photo Credit: Simon Turtle, Artwork Feast Creative