By John Anderson
Marking the 200th anniversary of the death of Jane Austen this play provides a prequel to Pride and Prejudice. The audience is invited to meet Mr and Mrs Bennet when they are first introduced and as they agree to marry. James Bennet is portrayed as a churlish 29 year old who is challenged by his father to marry in order to keep ownership of the family estate. Emily Gardiner is the flighty but beautiful 17 year old daughter of the Bennets’ attorney.
The performance takes some time to rev up, as often happens when a play has to explain context. However the characters themselves took shape quickly and were well played. The costumes were gorgeous and the director created a musical interlude between most scenes where the players gathered together at the front of the stage with a pianist and violinist to sing songs in the parlour style of the period, enabling scenes to be changed without the curtain closing, whilst maintaining the story-line. This was a very clever touch.
Most of the acting was of a high standard and although it is difficult to single out individuals three partnerships stood out for me. The first scene in the attorney’s house introduced us to Mrs Gardiner and her daughter played with sparkling vivacity by Zarina Belk and Katie Milner. Their barn-storming ensemble gave the production real energy and their characterisations were faultless. In the Bennet household the antipathy between father and son, played by Andrew Jackson and Tom Powell, eventually melts into warmth. Both actors have very attractive voices and act with great sensitivity and their final scene together was very moving. In contrast the relationship between Robert Bennet and his sister, played by Jane Ellison-Bates, requires the representation of consistency, trust and fraternal love, without the histrionics of the other relationships. A calm relationship like this arguably requires more acting skill than something more passionate, much in the same way as it is harder to sing softly than loudly. Jane and Andrew managed this challenge with great success.
Whilst I would be surprised if this play becomes a regular with professional companies it provided an amusing evening and lots of work for the hard-working Grassington Players backstage and front of house crew.