If you’ve even a passing knowledge of British literature you’re familiar with the story of Pride and Prejudice, even if you’ve been tricked into it by Bridget Jones Diary. As rich a yarn as it may be, it would struggle to connect with many people who’d find the prose a chore, and the significant moments lost without context or an English GCSE teacher to explain them.
Blood of the Young address that by presenting Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of), or “If Jane Austen Wrote Scottish Twitter”. Writer (and cast member) Isobel McArthur clearly loves and respects the source material, keeping the narrative, costumes, set and themes of social respect, class and (especially) gender, but frame it with contemporary hands. The Balls are now house parties with finger food and karaoke, the lengthy letters could be mistaken for text messages, and the actions of certain characters are met with the sweary outrage they rightfully deserve.
What this does is remind everyone why this is such a good story. None of us have taken tea at Pemberly with the landed gentry, but we’ve all been that lovesick teen who wonders why he won’t reply, the over-enthusiastic karaoke hog or the socially humiliated girl who goes on to drink all the champagne and breaks the furniture.
This deformalisation and removal of barriers, both language and social, permeates throughout the show even down to the set design. What looks like a straight Austen-esque furniture set-up is leant an air of mischief by the few oddities that appear after closer inspection, such as discrete disco lights or the hat on the bust at a jaunty angle.
The story is framed from the context of the servants, allowing the actors to multi role throughout the tale. This also allows them, as servants, to explain context, give exposition and sometimes act as deus ex famulus that would otherwise bog down the story, keeping the pace crisp. This is required with such a large story – the Wickham subplot is mostly reported in favour of devoting more time to making the main events more genuine.
It’s also laugh-out-loud funny, over and over again. Comic timing is in full effect here, with a particular favourite going to Hannah Jarrett-Scott as James Bingley (more BJ than JB), amongst her other roles. Some of the socially awkward comedy is stretched a little too far on occasion, though never enough to break.
But the mayhem does not get in the way of instances of genuine emotion. Charlotte’s and Elizabeth’s (played ably throughout by Meghan Tyler) interactions are altered from the book to give a more modern and more tragic light. Mrs Bingley’s hysteria and stress boil over at choice moments, turning deadly serious. However the energy is kept high by mood-whiplash; instances of gravitas are deftly reignited by chorus scenes and upheld by strong cast chemistry. It would otherwise be easy to wallow in emotion, but that wouldn’t be as fun.
And that’s what this show is: fun. It’s a heartfelt and fast paced rendition of the original romantic comedy, brimming with talent and making us all laugh harder than Regency England ever could before. Sing along if you know the words.
Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of) plays at Bristol Old Vic until Saturday 28 September.