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Austentatious: Fringe 2012

Note: This review is from 2012

Review by Steve Bennett

Such is the enduring appeal of Jane Austen, that his is probably the biggest free hit of the Fringe: fans have been queuing around the block to get in each morning, scores turned away disappointed.

Because of that pre-existing audience, it would be easy for the six-strong cast of this full-length improvised Austen novel to rest on their laurels. But no, this is as brilliant a piece of improv as you can expect to find on the Fringe, performed in period costume and with a live violin accompaniment – production values you don’t expect on the Free Festival.

Maybe that’s what’s drawing the big crowds because, in short, this excellent show is exactly the sort of thing that ought to have the paid venues worried.

The entire hour is improvised around a single audience suggestion – the title. After a leading international Austenologist pulls a couple of ideas from the basket to explain why those aren’t being performed, the chosen slip of paper is carefully unfolded to reveal that today we will witness a stage presentation of that great Austen classic: Darcy Does Dallas.

From that, and nothing else, the trio employ every cliché of the genre to play out a mannered period romance of snubs, yearning and ultimate fulfilment. It doesn’t even matter if you’ve never read an Austen, this is a slick and funny narrative comedy that would be entertaining even if it wasn’t created on the fly.

For unlike so many other improvisers, this group – known as the Milk Monitors – do not rely on their struggles to get the laughs. There are proper jokes here, with skilful performances of silly characters. Of course they occasionally stumble over an idea or line, even though the show is remarkably fluid, but these then become running jokes of the show joining clever comebacks that spread across scenes.

Dallas turned out to be a male cousin back from the Americas (played by Joseph Morpurgo with a southern drawl) bringing back news of the new-fangled ‘boogaloo’ which his relatives were very keen he unveil at the ball in his honour. The big dance is an Austen set piece that’s presumably one of the structural tentpoles holding up this adlibbed story.

Cariad Lloyd has a great physicality to her performance, pawing stupidly at the on-stage husband (played with suitable pseudo-decorum by Graham Dickson) whom she cannot keep her hands off in cringingly flirtatious scenes – but all six players, and their violinist, bring sharp minds to the job in hand. They riff at each other’s expense and top jokes with exquisite taglines, yet are confident enough to underplay some of the gags, knowing they are not so sparse don’t need to point them out.

Even when a man fell ill in the audience, disrupting the flow and atmosphere of the piece, the team slickly dealt with it with perfect professionalism. They quickly brought the laughs back and continued with the story, even with a reduced cast while some of their members attended to him outside, missing a bit of the plot in the process. (The man was fine, in the end).

Forget qualifications about being free or being improv. This is one of the most impressive comedy shows on the Fringe. Camp out early.

Review date: 17 Aug 2012
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Laughing Horse @ The Counting House

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