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Pride and Prejudice review at Nottingham Playhouse – ‘Sara Pascoe takes on Jane Austen’

Bethan Mary-James in Pride and Prejudice at Nottingham Playhouse. Photo Stephen Cummiskey Bethan Mary-James in Pride and Prejudice at Nottingham Playhouse. Photo Stephen Cummiskey

Sara Pascoe is a woman who knows funny. Jane Austen is no slouch on this front either. The comedian’s new stage adaption of Pride and Prejudice sees the pair circling each other on the ballroom floor before engaging in a slightly awkward if frequently amusing waltz.

Pascoe repeatedly interrupts the story of the Bennet sisters and their various emotional entanglements with contemporary sequences. A school teacher discusses the heteronormative nature of the novel’s opening line while her charges wonder when the zombies are going to show up and whether Mr Darcy is going to get his shirt wet. A director figure occasionally interjects, script in hand, to discuss the characters’ motivations and the plausibility, or otherwise, of the plot. Actors confess that they secretly prefer Sense and Sensibility. One scene is delivered in the style of a TED talk and there are further digressions on entailment laws and female agency in Regency England.

There also original songs – by Emmy the Great – in which Austen’s characters ask modern audiences not to judge them too harshly for being so focussed on money and matrimony.

Pascoe is only the second woman to adapt Pride and Prejudice for the stage, or screen for that matter, and while she delights in Austen’s wit, she also seems freshly affronted by the plight of the female characters and the decisions that they make as a result. She still seems cross about poor, pragmatic Charlotte Lucas and it does occasionally feel as if she has only just woken up to how shitty life would have been as a woman without means a hundred years before the suffragettes, as one of the songs puts it.

Susannah Tresilian’s production struggles to chart a path between the source material and Pascoe’s meta-commentary on it. Though Bethan Mary-James is a suitably grounded Elizabeth, there’s not a lot of room for emotional nuance and issues in pacing mean that it’s sometimes unclear when lines are being delivered with period-appropriate restraint and taciturnity or with the stiffness of people not completely on top of the script.

Placing everyone within Carla Goodman’s burnished birdcage set is not exactly subtle and coming so soon after Jeff James’ explosive foam party reworking of Persuasion for the Royal Exchange in Manchester, it feels a bit safe.

None of this dents its capacity to amuse. When its poking gentle fun at Austen – “who goes for a walk in a room?” one of the actors snaps out of character to ask – the production manages to entertain while also questioning just why we revere, adore, and repeatedly return, on the page, the stage, and screen, to a story where all a woman can hope for is a half-way kind man to save her from the economic catastrophe of spinsterhood and then, maybe, if she’s lucky, not to die in childbirth.

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Sara Pascoe's often amusing if sluggishly paced feminist unpicking of Jane Austen’s most popular novel