the bennett family

A Bennett family portrait. Tafline Steen as Elizabeth with Matthew Kelly as Mr Bennett and Felicity Montagu as Mrs Bennett and Elizabeth's four sisters behind.  Pictures: Johan Persson

Pride and Prejudice

Birmingham Rep

****

‘IT is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife’, and away we go with a splendid staging of Jane Austen’s much loved novel.

Simon Reade’s 2009 adaptation brings out much of the wit and humour without becoming bogged down in detail which all helps keep up the pace, helped by a clever setting on a revolve from Max Jones.

A touch of button and a grand Georgian skeletal crescent of wrought iron style balcony and arches sweeps sedately around to provide sitting rooms, gardens, ballrooms, stately homes, whatever is needed, all of which means scenes flow one to the other at a pleasant, gentle pace.

The fine set is a backdrop to some fine performances led by Felicity Montagu as Mrs Bennett. Mrs Bennett’s main ambition is to marry off her daughters to suitable men – suiMr and Mrs Bennetttability seemingly starting ideally at around £5,000 a year, a tidy sum at the end of the 18th century, worth about £400,000 today.

Montagu gives us a larger than life mother, best described by her husband when he tells his daughters that it is a comfort that “whatever may befall you have a mother who will make the most of it”.

The most loathed man in the universe is instantly a paragon of virtue and breeding if he be touched by the merest hint of matrimony . . . wealth permitting of course.

Felicity Montagu and Matthew Kelly as Mr and Mrs Bennett

First in the marriage stakes is Jordan Mifsúd as Mr Bingley, eminently eligible - i.e. has the required income - who has rented nearby Netherfield Park, which gives Mrs Bennett a chance to offload her eldest Jane, played with much promise by Hollie Edwin on her professional debut.

The two hit it off which is more than can be said of next eldest Elizabeth, played in a delightfully headstrong manner by Tafline Steen, who produces some lovely telling glances and touches of humour. The ball at Netherfield is no fun for her and she positively bristles as Bingley’s friend Fitzwilliam Darcy, played by Benjamin Dilloway, seems to demean her. Here is a man who turns aloof into an art form, appearing so superior that even God must look up to him.

So we all know they are going to end up as an item, she full of wilful independence, he remote, stand-offish and clumsy and tactless with words – and an income of more than £10,000, upwards of £800,000 in today’s money,which will keep Mrs Bennett blissfully happy.

Mr Bennett meanwhile, played by the marvellous Matthew Kelly, is happy most of the time, looking out for his girls beyond Mrs Bennett’s suitable (£5,000 pa) candidates for marriage. His asides, pained expression, glances; his attempts to sneak away when domestic storms are brewing; his support for his daughters, along with his witty remarks are a pleasure to watch.

And he does need to defend them when Mrs Bennett tries to present Lizzie, or indeed any of her brood, to the obsequious Mr Collins, played brilliantly by Steven Meo with a mix of superiority to those he considers below himself – i.e. most of the world - and sycophancy to those above him - i.e. related to Lady Catherine De Bourgh - in a gloriously amusing portrayal.

Collins is excruciatingly embarrassing, so sure of himself with Darcy and Lizzieso little to be sure about. Lizzie’s no messing, stone cold, till hell freezes over rejection of him being seen merely as her playing hard to get.

His dividing line between inferior and superior is the snooty, domineering Lady Catherine, who it seems is as far up the social tree as you can get without being actual royalty. She is his patroness, affording him the living as rector on her extensive estate with an income of some £3,000 a year – which is at the low end, but still acceptable in Mrs Bennett’s eyes.

Doña Croll’s ladyship makes Lady Bracknell look positively benevolent, wearing her air of privilege and superiority like a uniform of rank – which all looks a little threadbare when she confronts Lizzie to tell her she is not to marry Mr Darcy. No one interferes in Lizzie’s life.

Benjamin Dilloway as Mr Darcy with Tafline Steen as Lizzie in a kiss that brought gasps from the audience

When the Bennett brood turn Collins down he finds a wife in Lizzie’s friend Charlotte, played by Francesca Bailey, who sees love, and even happiness, as secondary to a comfortable home – marriage being infinitely preferable to old maidhood.

And we have another baddy in the snobbish Caroline Bingley, played by Kirsty Rider, who has her eyes on Darcy, so ridicules Lizzie at every opportunity, and sees Jane as being far beneath her brother, so does her best to chuck a spanner in that relationship as well.

There is good support from the other sisters, Anna Crichlow as Kitty, who also plays Georgiana Darcy, Mari Izzard as Lydia, who elopes with the novel’s cad Mr Wickham, played by Daniel Abbott and Leigh Quinn as the bookish Mary, who also doubles as the sickly Annabel De Bourgh, daughter of the domineering Lady Catherine.

She was her Ladyship’s designated bride for Darcy – but the best laid plans of mice, and in this case, matriarch . . .

Mark Rawlings is an avuncular Sir William Lucas father of Charlotte while Charlotte Palmer weighs in as the Bennett girl’s favourite aunt, Mrs Gardiner.

Director Deborah Bruce has kept up a good pace and the slimmed down narrative of the 1813 novel keeps the strong plot yet retain’s Austen’s observations on the themes of marriage, status and class, wealth and female independence.

Tina Machugh’s lighting also helps with a stage wide curved panorama of an autumn woodland scene changing hue to give subtle emphasis to a changed location.

With Tom Piper’s authentic looking costumes, a slimmed down storyline, and wit and good humour the result is a fresh, lively, entertaining version of a literary classic - a 200 year-old modern romantic comedy. To 12-11-16.

Roger Clarke

08-11-16 

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