I have tried to read Jane Austen’s famous novel Pride and Prejudice three times in my life. Each time, I get to about 100 pages and I have to stop. I just get so bored. I can’t read about romance for that many chapters – it’s just not my thing. But when I was invited to watch Austen, a musical with book/music/lyrics by Robert Winlow, which tells the story of Jane Austen herself, I thought I’d invite my Austen fan friend Bea along and give it a go.
As we sit in the front row of the small theatre upstairs at the Bread and Roses pub in Clapham, I realise how close we are to the stage. ‘I hope there aren’t many big dance numbers’, I think, and pray that there is no audience interaction either.
Of course, the show is set to only fill a small stage, though at times, the stage feels cramped with four actors, a pianist, two chairs, and a writing desk. Because of this, some of the staging itself feels clunky and I do worry that some of the actors may trip and fall over the furniture. Sometimes they spill out into the audience itself, walking down the tiny aisles at the side. In a slightly larger venue I can see why this would be effective – but in this stuffy room it feels like an invasion of privacy and a tight squeeze for the actors.
The book’s story is pretty historically accurate, telling the story of Jane’s life as she juggled affairs of the heart with striving to become a female published author. We see her grow from a young woman to her death, and Edith Kirkwood plays Austen incredibly well, with huge expressive eyes and a very sweet voice. Thomas Hewitt, multi-roleing as Jane’s various suitors, is a stand-out of the show, with a wonderful voice and equal excellence in both comic timing and tender moments.
However, it would perhaps have been great to have more textual references made to her other novels, as Pride and Prejudice appears to be the only one mentioned, and as the most likely audience for this show would be ardent fans of Austen, it only makes sense to add these Easter eggs in for them.
The music is subtle, and apart from a flat “romantic heart” refrain sang over again, it’s quite forgettable. In the moment, they’re lovely songs, but they’re not catchy enough to cement themselves in my mind – something which I believe is key in a musical.
I do sound rather negative about the show; it just wan’t my cup of tea. That being said, it does have some touching moments and I learnt a lot about Austen’s life which I didn’t know, albeit it running at quite a long 90 minutes. The show is a perfect one for any Austen fans or anyone looking to learn more about her in an entertaining fashion.
Austen is embarking on a small UK tour. See their website for details: http://www.austenthemusical.co.uk