Review: Pride and Prejudice, The Mount Without, Bristol.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a church converted into an arts centre and in possession of a magnificent interior, must be in want of a play. And so it was that The Bristol Old Vic Theatre School’s production of Pride and Prejudice, adapted for the stage by Simon Reade from Jane Austen’s novel was performed in the chilly confines of The Mount Without.
For those familiar with Bristol, the Mount Without is the former church of St Michael on the Mount Without – badly damaged by fire in 2016 – now transformed into an arts and performance space complete with a spacious bar in the crypt. Located on the impossibly steep St Michael’s Hill, the arts space and its surrounds are one of the city’s hidden secret spaces – with many steps, views and an almost gravity defying building that was once the place of worship for residents who lived up on the hill.
Pride and Prejudice is a novel thick with dialogue, furnished with large houses, expansive English countryside and a bewilderingly large number of characters. It is also one to the best novels ever written with at its heart the witty and impossible not to love Elizabeth Bennet and her opposite number and love interest the proud and aloof Darcy.
To deconstruct the narrative with its complex subplots and English landscapes, villages, parsonages and ball rooms is not a task for the feint hearted but in Simon Reade’s script the novel is boiled down to its basic stock. Coupled with Jenny Stephens’ direction this production takes the core of the story and mixes it with some of the emotion and home truths of Jane Austen’s novel. No marching soldiers, no horses and carriages and no stately homes. Instead, the cast use basic props and furniture and add the one ingredient essential for the story: youthful energy.
Played in the round this is a must for all fans of Jane Austen. True to the spirit of the novel the stories of the relationships of Elizabeth and Darcy, Jane and Bingley, Mr Collins and Charlotte, Mr and Mrs Bennet, and Mr Wickham and Lydia are played out with occasional narratives related by members of the cast to complete the story. Fast, fabulous and full of wit and humour – this is a production that hits all the right notes in their Empire line gowns and riding breaches. Eve Pereira as the main protagonist is everything Elizabeth Bennet should be: articulate, determined, independent and truthful – but also vulnerable and at times at a loss to know how the story will end. Darcy played by good looking Shivam Pallana could have done with a hot water bottle in the arctic performance space to warm him up but by the end his austere persona began to smoulder in the final snog with Elizabeth. But then Darcy is supposed to be a stiff.
An ensemble cast was at its most effective in the enjoyable dance and ball scenes and when the animated Bennet sisters raced around the space, pinching and giggling, flirting and shouting – as all teenage sisters do. Jane Bennet (Rhea Norwood) was suitable vulnerable, attractive and kind, finding the good in everybody’s character. And the other sisters were also a delight: Kitty played by Camilla Aiko was the embodiment of an Empire silhouette and mischievous sibling, Tanvi Virmani as sullen faced Mary maintained the anti-dote to frivolity throughout, and Lydia Bennet – the free spirit of the family – was played with a wonderful naughtiness by Carlie Diamond.
The novel is full of great characters – none more so than Mrs Bennet – the mother obsessed by marrying her daughters to wealthy young men. Rebecca Hyde enjoyed her role as the scatty matriarch delivering some of her one-liners with perfect comic timing. Aided and abetted by a rather young looking Mr Bennet in Bill Caple who at least had the body language of the elderly father of five and dwindling income.
Mr Collins played by Josh Penrose gave a stand-out performance as the obsequious and self-important clergyman and champion of his patron Catherine De Bourgh – playing the conceited suitor to the Bennet sisters with a top hat full of pomposity.
And his patron and Darcy’s aunt and owner of Rosings Park was given a mix of Charlie’s Aunt, Lady Bracknell and Alec Guiness’ Lady Agatha D’Ascoyne from Kind Hearts and Coronets. One word: brilliant. Taylor Uttley played the unreconstructed authoritarian aristocrat straight – not for laughs or as a send-up – but as the outrageously entitled widow who famously clashes with Elizabeth Bennet in one of the novel’s and this production’s great scenes.
Anna-Sophia Tutton in her maroon gown as the voice of reason as Mrs Gardner was consummate in her role, as was at the other end of the character spectrum Tom Mordell as the dodgy Mr Wickham – full of deviousness and a cocky self-assurance. Pragmatist Charlotte (Ruby Ward) who marries Mr Collins gave a strong performance as Elizabeth’s friend – we just know she gets the better of the priggish clergyman – and Joe Edgar as the amiable and handsome Mr Bingley cut the right tone as the man the sisters all wanted to dance with.
The Mount Without has a high ceiling which is fine for music, a large performance space ideal for dance – but for theatre the acoustics can be an issue as voices can be lost – but the voice coaches did their job in Pride and Prejudice as the diction and projection allowed for almost every line to be clearly heard.
One of the qualities of this production was the constant movement and choreography. Not just in the dance sequences but in the conversations set in drawing rooms and parlours. In what could be a static drama since so much is dialogue – of probing and questioning – giving momentum to each scene was essential – as was the seamless flowing from one scene to another. The director and her assistants in Aaron Finnegan and Sofia Gallucci and movement director Jonathan Howell added so much to make this production an outstanding success.
For fans of England’s finest writer there is a Jane Austen Festival in Bath this September including drama, talks and walking tours.
The play runs to Saturday, 19th February, 2022
Tickets at https://www.oldvic.ac.uk/
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Harry Mottram is the news editor of South Bristol Voice monthly magazine and a freelance journalist. Visit http://www.harrymottram.co.uk/