Jane Austen has become something of a cottage industry in the last 20 years or so. Beyond television and film adaptions, Austen fans have seen a wealth of books and other offshoots of Jane’s literary classics, adaptations meant to satisfy the hunger for more than the six enduring novels left behind by an author who died much too young.
Among the best homages to the Austen legacy may be Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, a play brilliantly produced locally by all for One. There is plenty to admire about both the play and the presentation, and the production is a must for Austen fans or novices, so charming is the product.
For those who are fond of Austen for the era in which she wrote, Miss Bennet is a feast for the eyes. The set is beautiful, with all the delicate touches one wishes to see in an Austen set and a Christmas play. With no scene changes necessary, all for One is able to provide one perfectly conceived room which allows for movement of the actors and even multiple groupings of characters while requiring no quick changes or interruptions of action.
The costumes are also a delight, providing the elegance and pop of color that is decidedly part of what fans of the Regency era find so enchanting about the stories and adaptations of literature of the time.
But what really makes Miss Bennet worthy of praise is the hilarious script, decidedly worthy of its source material, and the way director Lorraine Knox and the cast tap into each scene and line to make the most of the brilliant dialogue.
Those who have read Pride and Prejudice will be surprised by how marginal Darcy and Elizabeth are. But they won’t be disappointed since playwrights Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon have mined gold for middle Bennet sister Mary. Didn’t see that coming? It’s entirely possible Austen wouldn’t have either, and even Mary mentions in the play that her character lacks definition.
While that may have been true in her original incarnation, in Miss Bennet Mary is allowed to shine and move beyond her timid, non-descript nature thanks in no small part to a script which provides her depth and a love interest which provides her motivation to finally share her inner self. Rachel Walker’s performance provides plenty of definition, allowing Mary to become a fully realized character, one even Austen might have enjoyed.
The rest of the cast is equally accomplished, but Mary’s love interest, Arthur de Bourgh (yes, of the same family as Lady Catherine) provides many of the show’s highlights.
While it’s true that the play’s script can be credited with creating the role, it is once again Knox and Jordan Hersey who have tapped into the terrific comedy offered and providing a winning performance. Hersey is reminiscent of Hugh Grant in his romcom heyday, equal parts bumble and charm, and decidedly worthy of Mary’s affections.
Even the audience at the opening night performance provided enhancements to the production. It was obvious from the response to the story and reaction to specific lines aimed at confirmed Austen fans that many were there to revel in some new material that scratched that itch. By the end, the laughs and “awwww” responses from the crowd could have held its own against any episode of Full House.
But while it’s true that the show is decidedly aimed at those who hold Austen close to their hearts, having read Pride and Prejudice or even having a passing knowledge of Austen’s novels is unnecessary. Everything which has made those works so beloved is evident with or without that prior knowledge, making Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley a must-see for theater and Christmas fans.
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December 27 • Clyde Theatre