Commercially, Austentatious is perhaps one of the easiest sells on the Free Fringe: a popular and intensely loved literary brand – Austen – combined with the most crowd-pleasing of comedy styles – long-form improv. Just like an Austen heroine, it relies on a wealthy partner for financial and emotional support: a generous Free Fringe audience to be won over by its charm, talents and superior virtue. Fortunately, just as Austen's own face will be in a couple of years, Austentatious is right on the money.
The audience suggestions for the new novel's title tumble into the top-hat and many of the novels therein are summarised in Andy Murray's – not the one you're thinking of - wonderfully eloquent preamble, in the role of a ‘leading Jane Austen expert’. This bit feels like watching a very talented player of an ingenious parlour game. Eventually, with much bombast, the title of this afternoon's adaptation is announced: Northanger Tabby.
This title – say the next bit slowly – is the catalyst for a rather tall tale. It, the only audience suggestion that forms the main improvisation, is far less stimulus than most improv groups tend to use when doing long-form, which gives the narrative a very clear and singular focus. Although, of course, plenty of Austen tropes are ticked off along the way: desolate families with eligible daughters; wealthy, aloof men making terrible mistakes; shrill, over-bearing parents.
The parlour-game feel of the opening is kept up with the sort of noun-heavy scene establishing that sets clear gauntlets for fellow actors. 'Thanks for welcoming me to your newly founded veterinary psychology practise', to paraphrase one example. In fact, one of the most charming things about Austentatious is that the social reservedness of its Regency setting means that the inventiveness of the dialogue is foregrounded ahead of physical action and movement – something that well suits the company's impressive verbal talents.
A leading Austen expert has told me that there are some nine-hundred and twelve novels in Austen's complete canon. Since it is a truth universally acknowledged that a Fringe-goer in possession of a small fortune must be in want of a good free show, this could be one proposal you cannot afford to ignore.