DVD review: Austentatious
By Steve Bennett
Comedy DVDs are usually about capturing a near-perfect rendition of a live show honed from weeks, if not months, on the road. So it might seem slightly peculiar to release a permanent record of an improv show, elevating one particular performance to this special status.
Yet Austentatious craft a well-formed story worth preserving every night, using the format of long-form improv and the style of Jane Austen. Indeed, when this DVD was released a week or so before Christmas, one fan tweeted to indie label Go Faster Stripe: 'There's no reason why we couldn't have a new Austentatious DVD every month... please?'
It could be possible; after all the very premise of this show is that Austen was as prolific an author as Barbara Cartland, knocking off almost 800 novels conforming to the well-mannered format she set up.
The book here is Innocence and Indolence, chosen from a hat stuffed full of audience suggestions as part of an introduction by an Austen scholar (Cariad Lloyd) that doesn't do justice to the near hour-long drama that unfolds.
You don't need to be an Austen fan to immediately identify the tropes that follow, of rigid formalities and barely-spoken passions. Indeed, occasionally Amy Cooke-Hodgson take the role of a 19th century adjudicator, named Miss Bookhead after an ill-advised prop choice, to ensure all the 'Luxembourgian rules' of polite discourse are strictly adhered to.
This gag, like so many, is born out of what might be considered a slip-up. In another 'Brother-cousin' becomes not just a new relationship, but an integral part of the plot, after some confusion about the characters; perhaps understandable because of the multitasking required to fill all the smaller roles.
Lloyd is mischievously good at encouraging her playmates to go with the stumbles, but they all stifle smiles at the snafus they become committed to. And that probably gives a clue to a key market for this disc - to be sold after gigs to persuade incredulous audience members that such a complex story genuinely is different each night. Though the fact Austen writes to a certain formula must surely help…
This particular romance of repression involves Rachel Parris's Miss Baxter and the terminally indolent Mr Renner (Graham Dickson) who must save his vague relative (Joseph Morpurgo) from the gallows after deserting before tying the know with his intended; with subplots bringing in the other players, Charlotte Gittins and Rachel Parris. Yet even the most improbable Loose Ends get tied up.
There's quite a lot of plot, but never at the expense of a gag – the team perform a delicate balancing act of breaking the fourth wall while remaining wedded to the fiction, while atmosphere is built by both the period costumes and the cello of CJ Lodge.
The growing success of Austentatious on the live stage is testament to their skill, wit and playfulness – all of which are displayed here, with the coyness of an Austen heroine but the certainty of an Austen hero.
• The DVD, which also includes a 20-minute interview with the cast, is available from Go Faster Stripe, priced £12 for a physical disc or £5 as a download.
Posted: 15 Jan 2015