Pride and Prejudice

The Lyric Theatre's musical version of Jane Austen's novel is lengthy but beautifully delivered

It’s easy to forget that many of the best-loved and most successful musicals of all time began their lives as books. South Pacific, Oliver and Les Misérables spring to mind, as well as less mainstream shows such as Ragtime, The Colour Purple and Cyrano.

On the surface, however, the genteel, interior world of Jane Austen’s novels seems less adaptable to musical theatre, which thrives on spectacle, melody and choreography. Movies and television versions have been more visible, Pride and Prejudice being the most filmed and adapted of Austen’s works.

This is not to say that musical theatre has never attempted to fit an Austen work into its particular parameters. Again, this 1813 story about the Bennett daughters and their rather fraught relationships is the novel to which composers and librettists have more often turned, and the Lyric Theatre’s current production, Pride and Prejudice – The Musical, is the latest version to find its way to the stage.

In her programme note, author and Austen scholar Sophia Hillen suggests that in another era, Jane Austen might have become a playwright. Certainly, Austen’s flair for dialogue is undisputed and this production – by Lyric Theatre artistic director Richard Croxford and composer Mark Dougherty – makes very good use of rapid-fire, witty exchanges.

More than being very good singers, the cast are fine actors and the script, however much it takes us down a well-worn path, is beautifully written and delivered. For the most part, the story is advanced in the spoken portions, and songs are mainly used to underscore emotion and situation.

This allows the audience to enjoy the spectacle of the songs without having to discern text to a great extent, a wise approach as, for the most part, tonight the amplification is too loud and words are often hard to make out. Accompaniments tend to overbalance voices as well, and that combined with the general volume is unfortunate – a common fault in amateur musical theatre but surprising in a well-resourced professional company.

The set is very beautiful, referencing Constable with wonderfully rendered paintings as backdrops for the Bennett and Bingley households, and prominently positioned portraits of Wickham and Darcy. The floor area is represented as a giant compass, a clever nod to the changing directions of various characters' opinions and affections.

The Lyric’s vertical space is handsomely utilised, with elegant set pieces lowered into place as needed, the only slight puzzle caused by the constant gentle sway of the grand windows in Bingley’s drawing room. Minimal furniture pieces suffice for various settings, and cast members seated at the edges of the stage occasionally step near to provide a book or a wine glass, as if suddenly transformed into occasional tables or a bookcase.

Indeed, double casting is a feature of this production, though the decision to cast men as women is unusual. Mr Bennett and Darcy’s aunt, Lady Catherine, are played very effectively by the same actor, but one of the Bennett sisters is also played by a rather burley man, only ever appearing with a book or fan across ‘her’ face and never speaking a word.

This seems a step too far in the direction of comic cross-dressing, in a production which otherwise avoids irrelevant humour, though the delightful Christina Nelson as Mrs Bennett is utterly relentless in her portrayal of the endlessly simpering, face-pulling, supremely silly matriarch.

Ben Sleep is more dryly funny as Mr Bennett, with a fine singing voice and truly terrifying presence as Lady Catherine. Hazel Gardner as Elizabeth (Lizzie) Bennett is poised and incisive, able to act through singing as well as speaking. Her Darcy, Neil McDermott, has the requisite haughtiness underscored by a somewhat edgy singing voice.

Possibly the most beautiful singing voice, and the most memorable tune in the show ('Wasted Chances'), belongs to Tara Dickson as Jane Bennett. Actors also function as musicians, most particularly Holly Ashton, who is cast as Charlotte Lucas and Mrs Reynolds, and plays violin and viola, too.

The main musical accompaniment comes from composer/musical director Mark Dougherty at the piano and Wilson Shields at the keyboard/synthesiser. Dougherty’s music is more expressive than tuneful, catching the mood of the moment rather than providing anthemic or ear-warming melody. As such, it functions perfectly well in context.

However, at more than three hours, this is a long show, and one can’t help but think that it is the music that contributes as much to that length as the necessary plot points. Tempi at times feels proscribed and hasty, with little in the way of rubato or flexibility, which actors need to convey emotion in music.

Some judicious pruning of musical length might make this a more manageable and ultimately more expressive piece, a show which has much to recommend it in terms of strength of performances, beauty of presentation and, of course, a wonderful plot.

Pride and Prejudice – The Musical runs in the Lyric Theatre, Belfast until October 6.