Pride and Prejudice, romantic comedy for the erudite, has been adapted for theatre by Simon Reade for Theatre Royal Bath and is currently touring. This week it has been in Birmingham, where I went to see it last night. I’m often sceptical about adaptations of books, but (as countless BBC adaptations have shown) Austen’s social comedies with their light touch and sparkling wit, not to mention romance, tend to lend themselves to good adaptation. There is no point in being a purist about it; no book will be the same once it’s adapted for a different medium, but as a play Pride and Prejudice works well on many levels.
Susan Hampshire, of course, is an ideal Mrs Bennett; she demonstrates the avarice and foolishness we know to expect of the character, but manages to do so with a twinkle in her eye and apparent delight with the goings-on of her daughters that is utterly convincing and quite infectious. Her daughters, meanwhile, are well-differentiated despite the speed at which the plot must move to fit the novel into less than two and a half hours; Jane’s quiet dignity, Lizzie’s vivacity and Lydia’s headstrong flirtatiousness come across particularly well.
The production plays well to the innate comedy of the book, though the flipside is that some 0f the more serious and more detailed elements are necessarily omitted. Mr and Mrs Bennett are hilarious in their interaction; the obsequious Mr Collins is deliciously smarmy; and yet Elizabeth and Darcy seem to generate real affection and warmth for each other. The play is a thistledown confection, light, humorous and appealing, which may not be quite as Austen intended, but it’s a play that can hardly fail to appeal; even if Austen is not your thing, there’s still enough here to raise a laugh and warm the heart. That said, one might dare to venture the suggestion that it is occasionally a little cheesy – all the period dances grate on me after a while – but with its minimal set and toned-down costumes, it’s not too predictable. I hardly see how it could have been done better.