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Review: Promise and Promiscuity

Cabaret Festival

Penny Ashton injects a breath of fresh satirical air into the Adelaide Cabaret Festival with a brilliantly written and performed new show derived from the novels of Jane Austen.

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Showing amazing force, versatility and originality, Ashton plays at least six characters, but does not resuscitate them out of the Austen novels. We do not meet Mr Darcy sneering, nor Bingley strutting, nor even Mr Willoughby oozing across the stage. Rather, there are recognisable types, melded from all the Austen novels.

She has made her own characters, sometimes tending towards caricature – but why not? There is the silly mother, the male characters likening women to horseflesh, and the themes of marriage, money, sincerity, and what is appropriate behaviour for girls.

Central to these types, of course, is the more-intelligent-than-average young woman Elspeth Slowtree. Born to genteel penury, she just might, by her own talents, one day find love in a husband of wealth and position.

Ashton dashes across the stage, changing characters, ducking behind a screen whence she emerges in a new scene. The pace never slows; the delivery is staggeringly intense and captivating. She sings four or five witty songs. She is both the male and female character in a dance scene.

In another section, she drags up an unwitting male audience member to be taught the rudiments of the dance. Audience participation moments can vary somewhat, but this one was delightful; well played, Mr H.

Often, especially in the first 20 minutes or so, the script descended into series of pretty obvious doubles entendre. Riffs on the themes of balls and fingering became running gags which did work for a section of the audience, as did the frequent mentions of Elspeth Slowtree’s pirate novel, Fifty Shades of Aarrggghh.

But overwhelming all that were many moments of invention: one character was described as a “curmudgeonly crosspatch”. “Your skin is sparkling as if it were effluent on the Thames” was another description. The moments of wit came bouncing one after another so quickly it was impossible to remember them, a bit like an early Marx Brothers film.

Ashton is a real talent. Her performance was amazing; it was impossible to look away from her at any time during the 70 or so minutes of the show. She announced afterwards that she is taking it to Canada and London for the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death. A very worthy Antipodean export.

See more Adelaide Cabaret Festival reviews and previews here.

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