Promise and Promiscuity: A New Musical by Jane Austen and Penny Ashton

One woman, one show, one hour ten minutes and the entire works of Jane Austen to affectionately satirise: New Zealand comedian Penny Ashton’s Promise and Promiscuity is no mean feat. Taking on the Austen canon in her own winning way, Ashton recounts the regency-lite tale of Elspeth Slowtree.

Ashton must be praised for the way in which she intersperses this broad, more modern humour with 33 lines directly plucked from Austen’s texts.

Sensible, headstrong Elspeth is clearly a spiritual relation to Pride and Predjudice’s beloved heroine Elizabeth Bennet. Poor Elspeth must contend with her flighty young sister, overbearing mother, odious cousin Horatio, two spurring potential suitors and an 18th century mean girl, all whilst secretly writing her successful pirate novel, Fifty Shades of Arr.

Over the course of her performance Ashton takes on no less than nine separate characters, effectively capturing their respective voices and mannerisms with unstoppable energy. Interweaved into this fast-paced action are musical numbers, written and arranged by Robbie Ellis and set to classical music.

Although billed as a musical, the musical numbers are by and large the least interesting part of Ashton’s show and Promise and Promiscuity’s real strength is in Ashton’s skilled characterisation. Each character is cleverly differentiated and works as a believable Austen stereotype. Ashton expertly uses her physicality to transform from one character into another. There’s also a spot of amusing audience participation, whilst Ashton cleverly improvs through the slight technical glitches.

Promise and Promiscuity ultimately works as an effective, if predictable Austen parody. All the stalwarts of Austen’s work appear here, from the characters (there’s the enigmatic, Mr Darcy-esque love interest, the two drastically different sisters, the Mr Collins type and the overbearing mother) to the situations (the characters attend balls at which decisive events unfurl, young ladies get lost on long walks and love interests are not all they seem). 

Ashton gently pokes fun at these tropes, although humour is also derived from her modern-day allusions: the girls look for etiquette tips from one Kimberline Kardashian and Elspeth is a devoted fan of the complete poetry of William Joel. Whether the twenty-first century allusions have you laughing out loud or rolling your eyes will depend on your personal taste, but Ashton must be praised for the way in which she intersperses this broad, more modern humour with 33 lines directly plucked from Austen’s texts.

As a parody, Promise and Promiscuity offers nothing that Austen fans couldn’t predict. Nevertheless the show remains an entertaining seventy minutes, the likeable Ashton proving herself a witty, entertaining writer-comedian and a talent to watch. 

Reviews by Francesca Street

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The Blurb

Join Elspeth as she battles literary snobbery, cousin Horatio's digestions and her mother's nerves, armed with a blushing countenance, excellent ukulele skills and being quite bright - you know... for a girl. One Kiwi, directly related to Mr Darcy, tackles all of Austen's characters with song, dance and appalling cross-stitching. Weekly Best Theatre Award (Adelaide Fringe). Best Performance, Comedy, (Auckland Fringe). 'A delight' ***** (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation). 'Somewhere Jane is smiling' ***** (Edmonton Sun). 'Razor sharp turn of phrase.' ****1/2 (Adelaide Advertiser).