It is a novel concept – excuse the pun. How can Jane Austen‘s Pride and Prejudice, so well-known and well-loved, be brought to audiences afresh in the bicentenary of the author’s death?

Take a well-known and respected actress such as Hayley Mills. Set her up in an intimate drawing room setting on the sizeable stage of the Eden Court Empire Theatre, simply furnished with a sewing table, an antique chair, a vase of flowers and a grand piano. Then invite two utterly accomplished musicians, pianist Ashley Wass and violinist Matthew Trusler to accompany her with an especially adapted, bespoke composition of the iconic 1995 television series soundtrack. Even then, Carl Davis‘ music was a defining characteristic of the show’s success and lends atmosphere and authenticity to Mills’ retro-posh diction.

The sheer pleasure of an ensemble performance is evident – spoken word and music do not take turns as I had expected, but rather weave in and out of each other in impressive harmony – with smiles and nods and constant, appreciative communication between the performers.
The audience seems undaunted by the fact that the performance started more than twenty minutes late due to ‘technical difficulties backstage’, not does the three-quarter-empty theatre curb their enthusiasm. Many have come on their own, clearly interested and motivated not to miss this, a genteel and intimate performance of a story they already adore. Adapted with skill by novelist and Austen biographer Gill Hornby, a gentle humour runs through the script, and more often than not, the audience laugh ahead of the punchline in anticipation.

Spoken word and music together are not a novelty, recreating as they do the semblance of entertainment in Austen’s day. But with its soothing tempo, dramatic and emotional score and uplifting tone, The Story of Pride and Prejudice taps into something much deeper, much more existential and primitive: the simple joy of being read to.
And being read to well!
An excellent night’s entertainment, with a subtlety and gentleness we see all too rarely!