A balmy summer evening, men in breeches, a stage stuffed with bonnets, a punnet of juicy strawberries all accompanied by the sweet sound of honking, distant fireworks, park football games and some very fine prose from a certain Jane Austen. Surely the recipe for the perfect night at the theatre?
And in many ways it was. There’s little that can go wrong with any production of Pride and Prejudice (short of casting Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennett) if you stick with the original source material. And Simon Reade’s adaptation for the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre is as true to Austen’s original as a 2 hour 15 minute stage play can be. The problem is there’s a lot to squeeze into these 135 minutes and at times it was like watching the Reduced Austen Company. The plot gallops along like the fast post who delivers the news of Lydia’s elopement and some of the book’s best lines get swallowed up in the resulting turbulence. Frances McNamee as Caroline Bingley seems to suffer most; some of Austen’s greatest lines come from that caustic mouth, but McNamee is reluctant, or unable, to let these bon mots linger. She also seems a little lost without her equally bitter foil, Mrs Hearst, who like Mr Gardiner, Lady Lucas and Colonel Fiztwilliam is culled for this adaptation.
David Oakes as Mr Darcy is as tall and handsome as “a young man ought likewise to be, if he possibly can” and embodies the uptight, obnoxious Darcy of our first acquaintance with almost as much authority as a certain Colin Firth (who, incidentally, he sounds remarkably like). But he can’t quite loosen his cravat and change up into romantic gear towards the end, again, I think because he doesn’t have the space to do it. Jennifer Kirby is as vivacious, charming and as flawed as every Elizabeth Bennett should be.
Austen’s brilliant comic creation, the creepy, sycophantic and rather nasty Mr Collins always threatens to be a scene stealer, and Ed Birch came very close – no wonder he popped up in so many scenes where he shouldn’t have been. Deborah Bruce’s brisk direction never lets the action stop and handles the shifts in place and pace without pausing for breath.
Another casualty of the evening was Elizabeth and Wickham’s relationship, which is barely given any stage time – if you didn’t know the story well you would consider our naughty red coat inconsequential.
And, that is the crux of it, I know P&P too well and this production added little – and why would it? We can’t suddenly have Darcy eloping with Mary and converting Pemberley into flats. The beautiful Regent’s Park Theatre is the perfect setting for a night of frocks and frolics and I’m always going to enjoy an evening with Darcy, even a rather hectic one.
by Suzanne Elliott