It is a truth universally acknowledged that the West End can sometimes feel a bit pretentious, but one new adaptation in London’s theatreland is looking to change that.
Tron Theatre Company and Blood of the Young’s irreverent production of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of) has now opened at the Criterion Theatre in Piccadilly Circus.
Starring an all-female cast of five, multi-rolling, music and laugh-out-loud comedy combine in Scottish playwright Isobel McArthur’s anarchic but affectionate reimagining of Austen – “told by the servants and with karaoke.”Originally premiering at Glasgow’s tiny Tron Theatre in the summer of 2018, a subsequent tour through the regions followed the next year where the show became a word-of-mouth hit amongst theatre audiences, delighting both Austen-aficionados and English literature-phobics alike. More than three years since its premiere, the piece has now arrived in the heart of the West End, where it’s playing for an extended run.
We got to speak with the show’s writer, co-director and performer, Isobel McArthur, on the show’s remarkable journey to the West End, breaking down the intellectual barriers of classic literature, and representing Scottish theatre on the London stage.
It was around four years ago when Andy Arnold, artistic director at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow, approached McArthur with a broad interest in adapting a classic literary novel for the stage that summer.
McArthur recalls journeying to “the wee second-hand bookshop” below her flat and bought some 50p Penguin Classics, “one of which was Pride and Prejudice.”
McArthur had never read the novel before, admitting to a perceived kind of intellectual exclusivity around Austen and her novels.“I love literature – I have a degree in Scottish literature – but I understood from the little sniffs of different adaptations that I got on telly and film over the years that this was something relatively kind of po-faced and really about romance for its own sake. So, imagine my surprise when I opened the novel and discovered that it’s a total riot.”
Of course, even for those like McArthur who haven’t read Austen’s novel, the story is so deeply ingrained into British culture through the countless film, TV, stage, and radio adaptations that you’d be forgiven for immediately thinking of “plummy voiced Dukes, drawing rooms and people complaining about things that aren’t at all relevant to us.
“For whatever reason, so many people have done away with a lot of the comedy. Maybe we feel that things that are romantic can’t also be funny? Or that if you embody that spirit, you’ve made a rom-com and that’s somehow not the same high art or has that sort of degree of cultural capital that we afford Austen?”
Having suggested she might adapt Pride and Prejudice for the Tron, McArthur recalls “a bit of reaction from staff and others who had caught wind of that and said: ‘Well, if you do Austen for Glaswegians, you can do anything.’ And I thought ‘Okay, ha. There’s something we’re going to need to break down here.’
“I needed to bring somehow the clever, witty, incisive satire and, actually to my mind, the farcical comedy of the novel to the audience and make it accessible and enjoyable.”
McArthur then went to work on the adaptation, writing with a specific focus breaking down the barriers of the novel’s perhaps unfairly perceived snobbery.
It was the summer of 2018 when Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of) received its awaited premiere at the Tron: “When we gave the first performance it was the hottest summer on record in Glasgow, which never happens. Everybody was sat outside the pubs drinking and I remember thinking who’s gonna come and sit in a dark, hot theatre, it just doesn’t make any sense.”But come they did, and at the end of the first performance “there was this huge, overwhelming standing ovation, and we were all affronted and I thought, ‘okay, hold on.’” McArthur and the creative team had realised Austen’s Regency English world as something completely relatable, recognisable, and perhaps most importantly to its understandably suspicious Scottish audience, genuinely hilarious.
Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of) makes it intent clear from the curtain rising, with the five servants starting the show by breaking out into a brilliantly unexpected rendition of Elvis Costello’s 1983 hit Everyday I Write The Book.
For McArthur, “it was clear from the start that the piece was going to need music. Reading the novel, I was so struck by how preoccupied all the characters were with where the next party was coming from. And they’ve got every right to be because that’s where the matchmaking happens. I had the notion of therefore having karaoke.”
Using karaoke as the musical language of the show was a genius move on McArthur’s part – not only is karaoke so deeply ingrained into Scotland’s late-night pub culture and therefore totally recognisable for the show’s original Glasgow audience, but it also opened up a wonderful world for characters to start expressing themselves in.
Whether its Elizabeth singing a spiky rendition of Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain to Mr Darcy on their first unfortunate meeting; or a meta-joke of Lady Catherine de Burgh referencing her eligible young nephew ‘Chris de Burgh’ through the contemporary singer’s song Lady in Red, it’s a form that offers surprising and fascinating relatability and insight to the characters.
“You can have comedy, heartbreak, nervousness, exuberance, you can peacock, you can weep. I think anytime you see that going on in a pub, humanity is on display in so many different ways.”
Ticket sales at the Tron were enough to convince the theatre to extend the run by an extra week, meaning that more audiences, and also potential producers, could see the show.
The success of the run in Scotland was enough to convince higher-ups in the theatre world that this tiny fringe venue in Glasgow had something special on its hands and deserved to be seen by more.
The piece engaged the interest of some of the UK’s most prominent and respected regional theatres, allowing the show a future life.
“We ended up with a sort of eight-way co-production between all these different regional theatres because no one’s got enough money to send a show like this on tour. Not because it’s particularly opulent and expensive – it’s only five actors, it should be relatively cheap – but anything is just so hard without any commercial or external investment.”Through the winter of 2019 into the spring of 2020, the show, in the grand traditions of regional theatre, toured the UK, visiting everywhere from Bristol to Birmingham, Edinburgh to Oxford and various towns in between.
On its tour, Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of) became something of a sleeper hit, garnering standing ovations from audiences and love letters from critics, and began to catch the interest of some powerful producers from London’s West End.
McArthur admitted the prospect of her creation heading to the West End felt surreal: “The thing is, shows don’t transfer from the Tron to the West End. They just don’t. There’s even a bit of a joke in Glasgow theatre when you’re dealing with whatever problem you’ve got – the props are not quite right or the costumes look wrong and people go: ‘Oh, save it for the West End transfer.’ Of course, there’ll be no such thing.”
McArthur met with producer David Pugh during the show’s tour about making this seeming impossibility a reality. Pugh has famously been one of the West End’s most daring producers, placing fantastically inventive small scale shows from the regions into London’s West End.
These have included Cornish theatre company Kneehigh’s adaptation of Brief Encounter, the Sheffield Crucible production of The Full Monty, and perhaps most famously, the Olivier Award-winning comedy The Play What I Wrote, which subsequently transferred to Broadway.
“Some other people wanted to stick some famous people in the cast or get rid of the creative team and bring their own people in or whatever. It’s par for the course sometimes. It was very clear to me that David Pugh was the man to do it because he believed in keeping the integrity of the Scottish company, which is an expensive and difficult thing to do. He was a very committed and sincere individual when I met him and I could tell that he cared.”
Moreover, Pugh and the shows investors shared the Scottish company’s intent for accessibility by removing premium seats, something which is almost unheard of nowadays in the West End, as well as capping all tickets in the theatre during the show’s previews at £25.So what did it mean to McArthur to bring the show, almost completely and creatively intact from its original run at the tiny 230-seat Tron to the West End?
“I feel really quite emotional about it. Representing not only Glasgow and Scotland, but a lot of our values. Work that is unpretentious. Glaswegians can’t stand pretension and snobbery, and I think Jane Austen was quite similar. So I feel extremely proud to be able to do that.”
The show has now officially opened in the heart of the West End, and once more has been hailed something of a critic’s darling, but speaking to McArthur on the day the reviews for the show came in, it’s clear the audience response is what personally drives her creatively.
“You know on stage how the 600 people in front of you are feeling, and as long as they’re on the side, that’s what really matters. You know, good reviews are nice, and a few of them are coming out today, which is a lovely thing. But when real, normal people come and talk to you about the show, that’s what’s precious I feel.”
McArthur notes how the show has also resonated with young people who identify as LGBTQ+ in particular: “We’re an all-female cast playing all the male and female parts and the romantic climax of this show is essentially two women kissing on stage. If you are a heteronormative person living that sort of life, it’s Darcy and Elizabeth kissing and that’s what it will always be, but if you’re not, it can mean more.”
“There are moments where, I have had, even this week, screens and screens of messages from some teenagers who’ve come to see it and have said that they identify with Pride and Prejudice for the first time, or that they feel represented on stage. That’s about as incredible a compliment as I could possibly hope to get.”
So why should you come and see Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of)? “It’s just a joyous, entertaining night if we’ve done our job right,” says McArthur.
“You can bring people who are unconvinced, unconverted or those who absolutely adore Austen and have done forever. There is nothing to be scared of with this adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. You don’t need to know a thing.”
Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of) is currently booking at the West End’s Criterion Theatre to April 17, 2022. Tickets are on sale now.
Featured illustration by artist Bob Venables, courtesy of Amanda Malpass PR.
Edited by Will Drysdale and Trinity Francis.