Jane Austen’s novels are about the macrocosm in the microcosm. They are about the discreet play of agendas that turn a regency drawing room gathering into an epic battle of wills, for those lively enough to read between the lines. Johannah Tincey’s adaptation of Pride and Prejudice explores this polite, compact ferocity by casting two actors as 20 characters, tasked with alternating roles much as a real-life Mrs Bennett might switch between fawning and abrasive, depending on the company.
It’s a work of stylish whimsy and dexterity. Slight adjustments of dress and clever use of key props – a pipe, a sash, the ever-awaited letter from London – are deployed to ground each character switch. Dora Schweitzer’s flattened drawing room set is no less available to transformation, its single pillar screening the odd change of costume, its surreally dislocated fireplace and handful of chairs hinting at opulent ballrooms or the rattling intimacy of a horse and carriage.
Director Abigail Anderson keeps the pace brisk while giving the crucial wooing and confessions ample time to sink in. She brings absurdity to some of the transitions – the younger Bennett sister Kitty’s way of announcing her presence with an explosive cough, for instance – but never to the extent of stealing attention from Austen’s dry wit.
As for the performers, Tincey is a likeable Elizabeth, a hearty Mr Bingley and an amusing Mrs Bennett, but Nick Underwood proves more able to distinguish his parts and lend them depth. His Darcy, while a little too indebted to Colin Firth’s legendary hauteur, softens convincingly in the course of the play, and his spin on the bumbling clergyman Mr Collins is marvellously pompous, wheeling about the stage as though conducting an orchestra.
While this is a creation of lovable range and economy, both performers feel a little stretched by the rapid-fire role-switching, leading to an inevitable lack of nuance, exacerbated by the cues taken from various film adaptations. But its ambition alone makes it worthy of your time.