It is a truth universally acknowledged that any person in possession of a sense of humour must be in want of an evening watching a spoof Regency tale. Following their roaring success at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2012 and return in 2013, Austentatious! has been granted a monthly slot in London to help rediscover some of Austen’s lost novels, of which there must be hundreds. It’s a simple concept: the audience are invited to submit Jane Austen-esque titles on a bit of paper, the cast pick one at random out of a hat and for the next hour they will improvise the whole story complete with period costume, lords, ladies, repressed feelings and proper manners. Past titles have included ‘Pride and Predator’, ‘Fear and Loathing in West Hampshire’ and ‘Darcy and Bingley: Forbidden Love’. You get the idea.
So I took in my modest selection ‘Die Hard With A Virtue‘, ‘Dude, Where’s My Carriage?’ and ‘Sense and Self-Assembly’ (none of which were performed, although they did later on Twitter announce ‘Die Hard With A Virtue’ as their favourite unused title!) and instead we were treated to a suspense filled performance of ‘Hostages and Halibut’ – the look of bewilderment on the faces of the cast only added to the ridiculousness of the title, especially as they get no say whatsoever in the title they’ll be improvising!
Our esteemed cast of 6 (Andrew Hunter Murray, Cariad Lloyd, Graham Dickson, Rachel Parris, Joseph Morpurgo and Charlotte Gittins) have clearly honed their improvisational skills over many years – the real trick to it is to throw yourself wholeheartedly into your ascribed situation and to aid rather than block your fellow cast members. But equally, the big risk with impro is that it can very easily get carried away with itself and wander off topic – so given that the 6 of them have no time to discuss a plot or characters (and remain at the side of the stage when they’re not in a scene), it’s quite amazing that for the next hour we get a (very far-fetched) beginning, middle and end to the story.
The 3 sisters Miss Brown, Miss Brown and Miss Brown have noticed that all the male members of their family have mysteriously disappeared, so the eldest Miss Brown has sent her husband out into the dark, dangerous forest at night to go looking for them. He and his companion are ambushed by ‘banditi’ (with caricature Mexican accents) and taken hostage. It later emerges that old Grandfather Brown had overfished the lake and had made his fortune selling off all the halibut. This gave rise to some truly awful fishy puns (“I’ve come from another plaice”, “I’m not taking any more of your codswallop”). As the days pass, the hostages slowly befriend their captors, Chiquita and Raul. The sisters become ever more distressed and start to develop deeper feelings for the houseservant George and policeman DCI Williams. They hatch a plan and after thwarting the eldest Miss Brown in her attempt to keep the ransom money for herself, all the men are freed and the sisters are engaged to be married. They all go to spend Christmas with Chiquita and Raul and live happily ever after.
There is a great deal of playing multiple roles and having to overcome the difficulty of requiring the same actor to be 2 different people in the same scene causing them to excuse themselves because they must “make haste” only to return as their other character by putting on a hat. Their attention to detail on the language and characterisation is absolutely spot on. They are all devastatingly polite and well-spoken and have truly mastered suppressed passion: “Miss Brown… I wondered… I mean… I couldn’t help but wonder… whether you would… perhaps… do me the honour of… if you would be so kind as to…”. They also came out with some true gems “but he HATES cupboards!” and “Oh Cecilia! Must you poke like a man?”. Hostages and Halibut will never be performed again, but I will be going back to see another of Jane Austen’s most amusing lost novels sometime in the near future.
‘Austentatious: An Improvised Jane Austen Novel’ is playing on selected dates (once a month) until December 2014 at The Leicester Square Theatre, 6 Leicester Place, London, WC2H 7BX. For tickets and information go to http://leicestersquaretheatre.ticketsolve.com/shows/873485733/events