Sunday, 12 August 2012

THEATRE REVIEW: Austentatious (Edinburgh Fringe)

The Milk Monitors
Edinburgh Fringe - Laughing Horse @ The Counting House
10th August 2012

If someone had wanted to devise a show especially to appeal to my co-editor and me, they really couldn't have hit the nail on the head any harder and more precisely than the cast of 'Austentatious' did. We were hooked from the moment we saw those magic words in the Fringe guide - no, not 'Free Non-ticketed', although that did help... - 'An Improvised Jane Austen Novel'. Amazing.

This ensemble of six did not disappoint. It was silly, implausible, littered with the odd error and corpsing incident, but utterly delightful and unfailingly giggle-inducing. The title of each show is supplied via audience suggestion - charmingly written on slips of paper designed as classic Penguin book covers - and today we were treated to the mysteriously-titled 'Mr Bingley Pulls It Off'. Pulls what off, you may ask? Well, in the context of the preposterous plot, it turned out to be a glove, off the hand of Miss Clarissa Kopparberg (yes, as in the cider...) But beyond that, Mr Bingley (Graham Dickson) and his fellow Austenites also pulled off a comic performance with aplomb and panache that comprised admirable elements of improv, farce, pantomime and parody. Drawing on stock Austen characters - the pretty but poor girl, the condescending richer friend, the well-meaning but financially insecure young hero... - the cast of 'Austentatious' revel in clich√© and plunge themselves into stereotypes without fear: hilarity ensues.

Being improv, and - dare I say it? - being inspired by Austen, the plot has little logical sense or intention of meaning or message, but that simply makes it all the funnier. Cariad Lloyd and Amy Cooke-Hodgson were a brilliant double act who led each other into fresh improvised ideas and supported each other through their continuation - the singing of their names being a prime example of a ridiculous yet hilarious motif that ensured constant laughter throughout a scene. Joseph Morpurgo and Andrew Murray did a sterling job of remaining straight-faced in the face of ludicrous evolutions of conversation, sneakily evil challenges set by fellow cast members, and the laughter which erupted from the full and enthusiastic audience. Yet it was when the cast let the mask slip a little that the production truly showed its heart and soul. Mistakes were almost inevitable in an improvised piece, and were at times surprisingly basic - "Lord Bingley!" exclaimed Mr Bingley in one lapse of concentration. Yet rather than detracting from the professionalism of the piece, these instances served to keep the audience on side as they enjoyed both quick-thinking improv and the holes that the cast dug themselves. Acknowledging these errors on stage and dealing with them humorously is a skill in itself, and one that the cast proved themselves to be highly adept at. Furthermore, it was a joy to see them standing at the sides of the stage and laughing at their colleagues' scenes, taking real enjoyment in each other's craft.

There seems little point in recounting the details of this particular story as it will only ever be appreciated by those who were there on the day, but suffice to say the tale of vintage weapons, financial concerns and square dancing was in the end brought to a reasonably neat end. My overall impression at the end of this amazingly free show (I would have happily paid to see this!) was a great sense of fun and enjoyment which spread from the actors to the audience to the harpist (Tamsin Dearnley) to the one-man tech team. I was promised "silliness and sophistication" and I got a generous helping of both, with a barrelful of laughs thrown in for good measure. 

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