Review: Feminism rules among Bennet sisters in Pride and Prejudice at Regent’s Park Theatre

This latest stage adaptation of Jane Austen’s much retold story of the Bennet sisters and their dalliances with marriage is witty, well scripted and makes more than a passing nod towards the feminist ideal.

Elegant dresses hang from the trees surrounding the open-air stage in Regent’s Park as the action opens on a drawing room beneath the open sky, complete with grand piano and elegant set and Mrs Bennet fretting about what is to become of her girls. The Downton Abbey dilemma hovers over the household as the five Bennet daughters are due to be passed over in default of male heir Mr Collins. The family home of Longbourn will be lost and the girls’ marriages are of pressing concern to their mother, played wonderfully by Rebecca Lacey. So often portrayed as a superficial, silly woman, Lacey’s Mrs Bennet is smart, sassy and crass. There is something of Sybil Fawlty about the way she merrily conducts the family and you believe her ambitions for her daughters are genuinely driven by an innate understanding of how precarious their position in the world will be should their father die before they are married. “Someone should have tried long ago to do something or other about it,” she declares of the male succession dilemma. And she’s right. Austen’s text feels very modern after the recent female succession argument brought on by the imminent arrival of the Royal baby.

And from one strong woman to another as Elizabeth Bennet carves her way through her mother’s marriage meddling with an adept hand. Jennifer Kirby’s Elizabeth is a thoroughly modern girl, happy to raise an eyebrow at the proud Mr Darcy, turn down offers of marriage willy-nilly and proves herself to have the sharpest mind of the drama. The verbal sparing between Elizabeth and Darcy as they dance in the first act is among the most invigorating of the play. David Oakes’ Darcy is also dashing, aloof and beguiling, as you would expect. But his declaration of love for Elizabeth is far too sudden, arriving out of the blue like ice instantaneously transforming to steam. And so their love lacks substance. Both Elizabeth and Darcy are very likeable versions of this well-loved pair, but something of the magic of the slow burning intensity of their relationship is lost.

Unusually, the star of this Pride and Prejudice was the interloping heir Mr Collins, played brilliantly by Ed Birch. A prancing preying mantis, his Mr Collins is a stick insect on ice skates, he glides around the stage being an interminable bore, curtseying with knife sharp skinny legs in black tights, fawning over his patron, the austere matriarch Lady De Bourgh, played sternly by Jane Asher, and rousing many a laugh.

Simon Reade’s adaptation of the text is elegantly scripted, funny and frames Austen’s writing at its witty and insightful best. Aside from some overcomplicated running between stately homes in the middle of the production, it is also well directed by Deborah Bruce, with some unusual twists, such as a very touching scene in which Mr Bennet (Timothy Walker) talks with painful clarity about the failings of his own marriage. Pride and Prejudice still feels like a very modern tale, with gritty modern women at its heart. This production is a charming and thoroughly entertaining night of theatre, hard won praise if, like me, you believe the book has been adapted too frequently in recent years.

- PRIDE AND PREJUDICE at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park is on until July 20