Austentatious: An Improvised Jane Austen Novel

Fasten your knickerbockers and hold onto your bonnets: Austentatious is back for a fourth year of frilly-meets-filthy improvisation, based exceptionally loosely on the collected works of Jane Austen. She didn’t just write six novels in her 41 short years, our resident literary ‘scholar’ explains at the start of the show: she actually managed somewhere in the region of 900, before her ill-fated zeal for bear wrestling put her to a tragic and premature end.

Sceptics should have seen how this intrepid troupe tackled the horrible title they were thrown, which involved an Austin 7 and a jalopy

Embrace the whimsy: it allows this harmoniously offbeat six-piece to explore one of the esoteric (and usually rude) Austen titles we have thought up and scrawled down in the queue before the show, pulled quite literally from a hat immediately prior to its staging.

In this performance, Austen herself remained an afterthought throughout, apart from the serendipitous plotting – but we were compensated with bursts of exquisite character comedy, whether in the form of Joseph Morpurgo’s absurdly eloquent servant, Rachel Parris’ leering Lord Green, or Amy Cooke-Hodgson’s gruff barmaid.

Aside from some corpsing, which really just adds to the humour, it’s an incredibly slick operation. Most scenes involve up to four characters, leaving the other cast members to cut them off when they’ve reached their peak. The group’s violinist uses his improvised repertoire shrewdly, providing 18th-century atmos for everything from meet cutes to horse races, while the clothing and even the few props are all period.

So yes: the spirit, parlance and narrative pacing of Austen do form the essence of the show – but it’s in the jarringly modern juxtapositions that most of the comedy finds its source, and it sometimes feels disappointingly easy. Yes, it’s funny that, for example, Lord Eccleston uses an anti-dandruff shampoo that doesn’t exist yet, and yes, it’s funny when one character, Lady Nicole Scherzinger, cites Pussycat Dolls lyrics. But however they spin it, the self-consciously wacky anachronisms are essentially just one joke, and it sometimes feels dangerously close to getting old.

It would be all too easy to slate this limitation were it not for the enthusiasm of the cast, who like us are quite clearly having enormous fun. And although the performance of Beyoncé’s Single Ladies dance might seem tantamount to pressing a tried-and-tested laugh button, they ensure improvisation remains the focus of the show most of the time.

Sceptics should have seen how this intrepid troupe tackled the horrible title they were thrown, which involved an Austin 7 and a jalopy. Did they all know what a jalopy was? Nay! Did they flinch? Verily, nay! Their fluid collaborative efforts fashioned a gross-out love story that somehow ended up hinging on one character vomiting out live mice at a carriage Grand Prix in Kent. As it stands this show is a little bit comfortable in its shiny colonial boots, but it remains a most diverting postprandial hour.

Reviews by Larry Bartleet

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The Blurb

Austentatious returns to the Fringe in resplendent fashion! In each show, the all-star cast will improvise a brand new Jane Austen work before your eyes, based on audience suggestions. Previous shows have included Sixth Sense and Sensibility, Double 0 Darcy and Mansfield Shark. Prepare to get your bonnet in a twist: this hilarious show is not to be missed! Chortle Award winners 2014. Edinburgh Fringe sell-out show 2014. 'A potboiler of a parody, joyously performed' ***** (Times). 'One of the most enjoyable 60 minutes on the Fringe' **** (Guardian). 'Supersmart and terrifically funny' (Scotsman).