Austentatious opens with a solicitation for title ideas for ‘lost Jane Austen novels’ from the audience. Before long, a title is chosen and the cast improvise a play based on that imagined novel. They stumble through, delighting in innuendos, misunderstanding and corpsing, and it’s mildly funny. No two performances are the same, so I can safely repeat the details of last night’s show.
“Mansfield in the Dark” opens with the two young Farley sisters, Catherine and Judith, wandering the gardens at night, hoping to run into boys. Meanwhile, the one eligible bachelor in town is imprisoned in the neighbouring house by his mother, to whom he refers as “Mother and Landlady”. The ensuing events involve card game parties, illicit affairs, accidental meetings in the woods, and a runaway girls’ weekend to Brighton. It’s chaotic, unpredictable, and very, very silly.
The energy and enthusiasm of the cast is unfailing, with a jolly pantomime air. The actors constantly laugh at their own jokes and missteps, which works sometimes because the laughter is so infectious. On other occasions, it feels like watching a tight-knit group of children trying to explain why something is amusing. Their inability to communicate makes them laugh even more, and it’s all terribly good fun but nobody has actually said anything particularly funny.
At one point, somebody says of a prospective wife, “You would find her to be beneath you.” The man, clearly a romantic, replies, “That was my intention.” This is characteristic of the show, which delights in innuendo and bawdiness. It also relies on whiplash contrasts between old-fashioned appearances and modern references. A huge part of the humour is the simple joy of seeing somebody in period dress, with a pair of gloves and an upper-class accent, say the word “hashtag”, or move to Brighton to live with a girlfriend in a studio apartment with two cats, or know what an “oat milk latte” is. This wore a little thin for me, because it’s really just the exact same joke repeated dozens of times. The original Fringe show was 60 minutes long, and perhaps doubling the runtime has made it harder to keep it fresh.
The best parodies show genuine affection towards the popular source material, while gently undercutting it, and that was achieved here. You could tell that everyone involved loved period dramas, and enjoyed being in the show, and this created a tremendously happy atmosphere. The audience laughed raucously and applauded enthusiastically between each scene. It was a shame that the spectators weren’t involved more – one of the great delights of improv is when audience participation sends the evening in unexpected directions.
Fundamentally, it’s a bit funny to see a posh woman in a dress with an empire waistline barking, “Fuck off!” If that’s enough for you, you’ll adore this show. Go along with suggested titles in mind, and a glass of wine (or three) in hand.
Written, performed and produced by the cast
Austentatious plays at Leicester Square Theatre next on 13 and 27 June. More information is available here. There is then an outdoor performance at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre on 31 July. Tickets and general information can be found here.