If you are fatigued in your search for entertainment in London Town then I can recommend no better tonic than a dash of Austentatious. This improv troupe has been making up Jane Austen novels for years and has now taken its hilarious confections to the West End stage. It doesn’t seem long ago that I saw them above a pub, now they’re playing at the Piccadilly theatre.
Without a script and in full Regency costume, six actors build a comic Jane Austen-esque story from only a title given by the audience. As befits the West End they have an elegant set, which helps set the scene as the sort of chandeliered drawing room in which Austen’s characters are often found swooning. The cast have great camaraderie and clearly have a lot of fun piecing together the improvised show. This enjoyment is easily transmitted to the audience who are often in fits of giggles. Those actors not in a scene stand in the wings enjoying their colleagues’ creations as much as the audience, whilst sometimes the actors on stage can’t help but laugh at the hilarity they are creating. The audience’s enjoyment is only increased by seeing cast members desperately trying to keep straight faces whilst surrounded by the playful inspiration of their comrades.
The play that is created is different every time that it is performed. The extent of its Jane Austeness changes with each performance, and there is no need to have any knowledge of Jane Austen’s books to enjoy the evening. A previous time I saw Austentatious the plot was an absurd delight with a preposterousness that sparkled. Here the plot was more conventional, sadly forsaking outlandish comic twists for a tale of a woman leaving her family for another man, whilst a son was prevented from seeing his lover. How I dreamed of the schemes of a chap like Soupy Baxter – see a previous Flaneur visit to Austentatious.
Yet the interactions between the cast can be hilarious. Their willingness to go with mistakes (‘Milton Keynes? I don’t think it has been built yet’) adds to the fun, as does their inventive understanding of what a scene needs. It might be Joseph Morpurgo running on stage to be a nude model or Cariad Lloyd performing an unexpected Spanish dance and Graham Dickson giving her nine out of ten and saying he thought she’d be back next week.
More time is allocated for the play now and the scenes are longer. This leads to more digressing which can be amusing but – as must be the case with improv – doesn’t always hit the mark. The funniest situations are often when one actor deliberately throws another into a tricky situation. Last night this was definitely the case, Amy Cooke-Hodgson watching Lloyd’s exuberant dance and then commenting that one of the other characters was an even better dancer. This led to Andrew Hunter Murray having to give it his all – very successfully – on the temporary dance floor. At one point Dickson’s Gerald was forced to play a very lifelike model of himself in a flashback scene that took place purely to see how he would play a very lifelike model of himself. He did it brilliantly and it was a moment when the play headed wonderfully if too briefly into the absurd.
Along with the cast the two musicians deserve special mention. Oliver Izod and Alex Judd sit on stage and provide accompaniment. But they also lead some of the action, adding suspense and verve to unexpected moments. Unseen but also adding to the humour by focusing on certain parts of the action was lighting director Jonathan Monkhouse. He brought out extra amusement from the onstage action concerning Bruce’s ‘cuckold’s handshake’, (shaking hands with him was apparently like shaking hands with some broth).
Austentatious is a great idea and this large West End production lets many more people enjoy the comic madness than is possible in smaller venues, although the more intimate atmosphere, shorter running times and lower ticket prices of Fringe venues allow the performance to be tighter and more experimental. Austentatious is highly recommended, Jane Austen would be very proud to have inspired such exuberance and her characters would definitely feel at home at the grand Piccadilly theatre. The only problem is there are not many performances in this run, so get yourself a ticket asap.
Austentatious by Robert Viglasky