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

In the latest theatrical offering of a Jane Austen themed adaptation, this piece, which is billed as a new musical by Penny Ashton, interweaves thirty-three direct passages from Austen’s own novels, and seeks to amalgamate them in such a way so as to create a new narrative, headily replete with figures not out of place in either Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion or Northanger Abbey. The writer’s one-woman performance as all of her created characters is filled with fun which spreads infectiously into the audience.

A production which amplifies and satirises the behaviour of Austen’s characters.

While it is true that much of the script’s humour relies upon simile after increasingly contrived simile, and base crudity apparently present for no other reason than to elicit easy laughs, Ashton’s knowing nod-and-wink style delivery eventually comes to supersede the potential eye-rolling monotony it threatens. In fact, by the closing exchanges, the repeated jokes come to take on a strange charm in their familiarity. The greatest success of the performance is in Ashton’s overblown and energetic characters. She has a penchant for playing upon a particular quirk or affectation and subsequently feeding off the audience’s response to generate the humour.

The few songs present are set to well-known pieces of classical music, nicely pre-recorded by an excellent five-piece orchestra. The rousing and comic use of the Radetzky March towards the piece’s finale serves to encapsulate the light wittiness of what has come before. However, for a piece which is supposedly a new musical, the songs do not quite live up to expectation. The numbers themselves, though performed capably, do not greatly advance the narrative and are vehicles for much of the same humour as the libretto. Indeed, were the songs to be completely removed, the piece would not suffer too much which is perhaps an indication of their present value.

Amongst the highlights in this performance was the episode of audience participation, where one audience member is chosen to take part in a dance with the performer. Ashton’s ability to ad lib, while maintaining a semblance of her character, makes this a thoroughly enjoyable break from the main performance and injects a great deal of enthusiasm and good feeling back into it. This is certainly a production which amplifies and satirises the behaviour of Austen’s characters – there is just the danger that some viewers may find the attitude towards the original texts unduly mocking rather than being as deferential as a piece featuring many of Austen’s own words might be.

Reviews by Joshua Clarke

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The Blurb

After 2015's rapturous response, Ms Ashton's bonnet is back! 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 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' ***** (CBC.ca). 'Sparkling' **** (Scotsman). 'Razor sharp' ***** (ThreeWeeks).

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