The wonderfully witty improv comedy troupe returns to the Fortune Theatre, but how will Austentatious be received by our Austen super-fan and theatre critic, Jo Hemmings?
I wrote recently about my great love for Jane Austen – and my consequent trepidation in approaching the many spin-offs deriving from her works.
Austentatious is precisely the sort of thing that is poised to both interest and worry me. It is an improvised comedy play, with six actors dressed in Regency costumes pretending to act out a ‘lost novel’ of Austen. The title is chosen from suggestions by the audience, and so each performance of Austentatious is entirely different. On the evening I attended, the title chosen for the play was ‘Lydia Bennet’s Gap Year’. It was a good choice, although ‘Mansplain Park’ would have been interesting. Already, it was clear that the young audience were demanding something relevant and relatable from their night out. The setting may have been two hundred years in the past, but the cast had no problem meeting this demand, joyfully including anachronisms and modern references to amuse their audience. Such as the constant downing of tequila shots. It was best, I decided, to distance myself from Austen and to take this comedy for exactly what it is meant to be – an entertainment. And it was certainly entertaining. Austentatious is great fun and its small cast are very, very talented.
The thing about improvised comedy – maybe all comedy – is that you have to be there. It does not bear relating very well at all. So I could tell you about the amusing moment when one of the characters, having just been put in prison by a spontaneous invention of another (and suddenly putting up his arms to hold imaginary prison bars), decided to go on a killing spree and kill three of the other characters – causing extra amusement when the real-life heavily pregnant actress then needed assisting on to the floor as part of her death scene. But that sort of thing is not at all funny unless you’re there.
More remarkable than the story was how the very clever cast bounced off each other, building a scene that rose and rose to a punch line – at which point the lights cut out right on cue and the scene changed. For it’s not just the actors who improvise: special mention must be made of the improvised music and illumination. The production in the first act was so smooth I actually began to wonder if it was in some way rehearsed. But as I continued to watch this remarkable comedy troupe, I realised that they had simply mastered the ability to work together. I was expecting the second act to run even more smoothly than the first (I reasoned that the actors had used the interval to discuss and prepare the trajectory of the second half). In fact, it was less smooth. The actors occasionally interrupted each other, bumped into each other and, more than once, could be seen struggling to contain their own laughter. I chose to believe that this was genuine, and it made it even funnier.
It seems that there is no end to the amount of creativity that Jane Austen inspires. Some of these offshoot works are good – Jo Baker’s Longbourn is a deserving novel in its own right. Some are popular – the success of Seth Grahame-Smith‘s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies speaks for itself. But most are painfully derivative and necessarily sub-standard, and it is this that I fear whenever I see that someone else is doing something else yet again involving Austen. In the end, none of these concerns are relevant to Austentatious. Improvised comedy is its own art form, and any subject is fair game. The fact that this one played with Austen and her novels simply makes it more notable. I was entertained, I would recommend it to my friends, and I would even go again – for it would be interesting to see how different it would be on a different night with a different title.
Would Austen have enjoyed it? Well, she is known to have had an interest in amateur theatre. Such theatrical antics are condemned in her novel Mansfield Park (1814), in which Edmund agonises over the propriety of acting a part in the family play of Lovers’ Vows, rehearsals of which are then abruptly halted by Sir Thomas Bertram’s anger on his sudden return. But in her own life Austen very much enjoyed putting on amateur theatricals with her family. Her juvenilia is brimming full of spontaneous wit and vivacity. So maybe she would indeed have enjoyed Austentatious. Maybe.
Austentatious will be playing at the Fortune Theatre, London, on various dates until 16th December (click here for all dates and show times).
- Feature image, ‘Austentatious, The Cast’ by Robert Viglasky.
- Portraits, ‘Austentatious: The Ladies’ & ‘Austentatious: The Gentleman’ by Matt Crockett.