You don’t have to be a Jane Austen reader to be drawn into this very clever one-woman show – but if you are a fan, you’re going to love it.
Kiwi Penny Ashton, dressed in a hot-pink Regency gown, inhabits a troupe of Austenian characters, primarily Elspeth Slowtree, of two and 20 years and still unmarried at such an advanced age.
Elspeth, a secret contributor of racy pirate stories to the Quigley Advertiser, is a smart young woman who would rather not marry than dumb herself down.
With a selection of musical numbers, more than 30 Jane Austen quotes from across her canon, pop culture references, fruity double entendres (mostly about balls, and their delights or otherwise), and a single delicious slice of audience participation, Ashton weaves an Austen-like tale, with the right doses of familiarity and surprise.
She jumps from one character to another with a great deal of physical and vocal deftness – from Elspeth, to her hyperventilating mother, to her silly younger sister, to the family’s snobby patroness, to cousin Horatio with his chronic digestion problems, to dashing and rich Reginald Wrexham and his serious and brooding friend Digby Dalton.
As my companion noted, while Ashton does the broad comedy well, she also makes us care about the feisty Elspeth’s future prospects which, as you may have guessed, are caught between the charmer Reginald, the repulsive Horatio and the the stand-offish Dalton.
And while Digby doesn’t go for a dip in the pond, Ashton does end up soaked on this Sunday afternoon matinee, given it’s about 40 degrees outside and Holden Street Theatre’s air-con isn’t quite managing.
It’s a physical show, with Ashton throwing herself about the stage as she dances with dashing gents, bounces along in a carriage, takes constitutionals, and gets caught in a storm – basically every Austen set-piece.
There are only a handful of musical numbers, and it’s good fun to pick the musical and lyrical references, but, for me, they weren’t as interesting as the main body of the show, which is bordering on virtuosic.
At the end Ashton provided some verbal program notes (she hadn’t had time to put together a written version), during which she said her bookings were rather thin from here on.
She deserves some solid audiences, so if you have even a passing interest in Jane Austen, or just enjoy wry and intelligent comedy, then get yourself a ticket.
Promise and Promiscuity: A New Musical by Jane Austen and Penny Ashton is playing at The Arch, Holden Street Theatres, until March 8.
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