Nicola Harvey enjoys the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre’s acclaimed production of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice which runs at the Theatre Royal Bath from Tuesday 17th to Saturday 21st January

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that a miserable, wet January evening could only be improved by a midweek theatre visit. With a little Jane Austen in prospect, my friend and I were very much looking forward to Pride and Prejudice at The Theatre Royal, Bath.

Even without the inevitable comparisons with Colin Firth’s Mr Darcy, successfully presenting such a classic for the stage would be a huge challenge and I wondered how this would work.

This adaptation, originally for Theatre Royal Bath Productions in 2009, but whose current production is now on UK tour after an initial run at the open air theatre in Regents Park last September, rose to the challenge admirably well, even if not totally flawlessly.

The casting was excellent. Darcy (Benjamin Dilloway) and Elizabeth (Tafline Steen) made the roles their own, with Elizabeth perhaps less dainty than in other adaptations, and all the more real as a result. Was I totally convinced of their absolute passion for each other? Perhaps not, but they certainly conveyed their initial mutual dislike very well. Mr and particularly Mrs Bennet delivered comic lines with aplomb but studiously avoided pantomime style delivery. Mr Collins (Steven Meo) avoided the caricature he could easily have become, whilst remaining deliciously pompous. Caroline Bingley was frostily cutting in her disdain for the Bennets. I particularly liked Leigh Quinn’s portrayal of terribly plain but accomplished Mary.

Simon Reade’s script was successful in capturing the spirit of Jane Austen’s writing and had me freshly gripped and questioning how there could possibly be a time when a woman’s main purpose in life was to accumulate accomplishments and procure a rich husband. At the same time, the way in which many of the female characters were so unashamedly judgemental of each other really felt depressingly similar to the joys of modern day social media.

Matthew Kelly’s Mr Bennet was the perfect contrast to the ridiculous squealing excesses of most of his marriage-hungry family and his final scene with Elizabeth was touching. The dancing was charming and the large cast allowed a feel of a busy 18th century ball. That said, I felt the most successful sections were when two characters, notably Elizabeth and Catherine were able to converse alone.

The set was a revolving cast iron affair which allowed the depiction of the various locations really rather well. Saying that, the scene changes and entry and exit of characters felt rather busy and distracting at times, particularly in the last duologue between Elizabeth and Mr Darcy. I would happily have had a clearer stage and mentally filled in more of the physical blanks-allowing me to focus more on the really rather well delivered dialogue. I can imagine it working perfectly in the original open air surroundings where the real trees would have interacted better with the rigid metalwork better than the projection that had to suffice indoors.

All in all, Pride and Prejudice would please Jane Austen fans and those coming to her work for the first time and is well worth a look. Just don’t expect to see a shirtless Colin Firth!

www.theatreroyal.org.uk