Austentacious (Fortune Theatre)

Improvised shows are always fun, as Showstopper! proved early in 2019. That was a completely improvised musical, with a title suggested by the audience, and three musical styles agreed.

Austentatious, as you might imagine, presents an “improvised Jane Austen novel” from a suggested title, under the guise of one of Austen’s many “lost” works. At the show I saw, the title chosen was “Mansfield Caravan Park” which turned into an amusing piece about snobbery, hidden passions, improbable triplets, an incongurous pan factory, a study in adverbiage, and a heap of hidden gay subtext.

The title of the show itself is a play on words, on “ostentatious”, which is loosely defined as seeking to attract attention by obviousness. Quite often comedy can be unduly broad without much thought behind it, but the team behind Austentacious clearly have Janeite souls and can quickly react to whatever situations and lines are thrown to them, including sight gags and name puns.

Although I regretted the absence of actual Austen characters in caravan-land (what fun could have been had with the Eltons, or Lady Catherine De Bourgh), the characters created by the team were excellently portrayed, and came together well to advance the story, even including the requisite happy ending(s).

Just announced for a continuing residence at the Fortune Theatre (Sundays and Mondays) from 24 February into mid-July 2020, Austentacious is not just for Jane Austen afficionados (although having a working knowledge of her novels probably helps) but for anyone who likes to watch a company making it up as they go along, and seeing how successful it will be. There’s even a loyalty card scheme – attend four shows and get the fifth free – for those dedicated to catching most of Austen’s lost classics.

The cast of Austentacious at the performance I saw included Amy Cooke-Hodgson, Andrew Hunter Murray, Cariad Lloyd, and Charlotte Gittins. The lack of a programme means I cannot fully credit the whole company or their creatives, but all combine to create a show which entertains, diverts and delights in equal measure. If you have the pride and the prejudice, the sense and the sensibility, and you have the persuasion to park yourself, you will enjoy this show.

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200 Years Later: Jane Austen’s Sanditon (Other Palace Studio)

Jane Austen’s Sanditon would seem to be a major draw at the moment, despite being left unfinished. Andrew Davies has written a version which will premiere on television in 2030, and then there is this preview of a new stage musical by Chris Brindle and Vicky Clubb.

Playing in the intimate surroundings of the Studio downstairs at The Other Palace, we join Anna/Charlotte (Rebecca Huish) and her pop-rock band as a new idea is pitched to them, a concept album inspired by Jane Austen and her unfinished novel, Sanditon.

With a handful of excellent songs (especially Shallow, Opportunity and Nouveau Riche) and some excellent performances from Huish, director Angie Diggens with her fine harmonies, Amber Cayasso who raps and displays strength as a mixed-race woman of wealth in the 18th century, Elizabeth Brooks’s G&S vibe, Emily Bate’s period drama and William Hastings’s strong-voiced soundman, Sanditon shows a lot of potential, although the narration and pace of the second half still feels as if it needs a bit of work.

The band, including Clubb, Fern Teather, Sam Thurlow and Marcus Wood, work hard to convey a variety of styles from traditional pop to “pom pom” music hall, and Alex Terry adds a touch of the grotesque to his comedic characters.

I feel this musical may well expand to one with an interesting future, and it feels right as a small-scale actor-musician piece rather than a full West End production.

Last night’s one-off performance was professionally filmed so if you’re interested, you may be able to see it and make your own assessment. For both Austen fans and those open to new musical ideas, this was a definite hit, which also left the audience assessing how relevant Austen’s ideas and themes remain today.

Rehearsal and location photos courtesy of Chris Brindle and http://www.sanditon.info.

Doctors and Jane Austen

The daytime soap opera ‘Doctors’ recently spent a whole week of episodes based on the works of Jane Austen, using a patient with selective mutism who lives in her own fantasy world as Lizzie Bennet of Pride and Prejudice fame for the Monday and Tuesday instalments, titled ‘Austenland’, with other books such as Northanger Abbey and Emma dealt with later in the week. Lizzie (and Emma, the two characters seem to be merged) are played straight which makes a strange disconnect with the usual hospital shenanigans.

A parody of Austen’s books is nothing new (we may think of ‘Lost in Austen’) but this amusing idea of changing the doctors and nurses into bodices and crinoline works well enough as throwaway entertainment.  A daytime audience made up of lovers of period drama is obviously the target for this soap, and some of the actors look as if they are enjoying the change of scene and script.

Doctors is usually a busy daytime drama set in a Midlands hospital and following the lives of the staff and patients, but it is fun watching the familiar faces portraying Darcy, Lady Catherine, Mr Collins, and Mrs Bennet!  It does have a bit of ‘out of school’ feel though, or one of those Morecambe and Wise specials where Eric and Ernie and their hapless guest runs through one of the classics.

Read more about the special Austen week at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/galleries/p01hs8f1.

NaBloPoMo November 2013