Austentatious at the Old Queen’s Head
Tracing Jane: Two hundred years after her works were first published, Jane Austen not only continues to appeal to readers of all ages and backgrounds, but also inspires writers and artists in different genres and media. This rubric will trace Austen’s work into the twenty-first century and investigate the fascinations, imaginations and, perhaps, annoyances which led these different artists to put their own spin on her classic novels.
Staff outings at The Jane Austen Detectives take a slightly different form from most other company entertainments. So far from trying to avoid the subject of our work, we use them as opportunities to trace Jane Austen’s work to its modern-day expressions – although it also serves as an excellent excuse to choose slightly less conventional settings. Kristen’s suggestion that we see an ‘Austentatious’ Jane Austen-inspired improv performance at the Old Queen’s Head in Angel therefore was, in a word, ideal.
Kristen has described the format of these performances in her earlier review, but ‘Phlegma, or: Northwanger Abbey’ was an entirely new and unique production – unique largely because it is unlikely that any of the actors themselves can remember it fully.
The group was introduced by renowned Jane Austen scholar Dr Sam Patton, of the University of Rotterdam – although I can guarantee that no native of Rotterdam ever spoke in her accent. Patton explained the reclamatory efforts of the group. Most ignorant fans, she informed us, believed that Jane Austen had written no more than six complete novels in her lifetime. The truth, however, is that scholars are constantlydiscovering ‘lost’ Jane Austen novels: over 700 have thus far been found, including one, recently, lodged in the ear canal of the exhumed body of Mozart.
Drawing notes out of a hat, she read out and described to us a number of these gems – which bore a surprising resemblance to the suggestions the audience had been invited to write down before the show, although our group was disappointed to hear no reference to our ideas for ‘Fiery Felicity’, ‘The Mary Crawford Academy for Young Ladies’ or ‘Northern Anger Abbey’.
We did, owing to the research of Dr Patton, discover that Jane Austen in fact developed the popular dance now known as Gangnam Style and also invented the disco ball. The play the group eventually chose to perform was a thoroughly Gothic story about the daughter of Hungarian swimming instructor Lord Phlegma, secreted away in a ‘crenulated’ mansion (“See how often I can use that word!”).
In a performance saturated with running jokes – in a theatre company calling itself the ‘Milk Monitors’, there is always a role for an aged butler named Jeeves who keeps interrupting with endless glasses of milk – and modern-day slip-ups – we learned a great deal about a popular Georgian London entertainment called the ‘cinema’ – it was impossible not to feel, while laughing, a sincere admiration for the people who realised the performance.
There were few props, since an improv performance does not allow for planning what will be needed on stage, but those used were sensitive to the time period and its domestic atmosphere. The costumes were both beautiful and functional. Most delightfully, the whole performance was accompanied by live Georgian cello music.
The actors were not only wonderfully fast on their feet and with their words, but also astonishingly well attuned to one another. For all the times when it was clear that one of them had playfully passed the buck to another, often in revenge for an earlier slip-up, they also rushed to one another’s aid if there was any threat of one individual’s imagination flagging, and each picked up on casual gestures and accidents to hilarious effect – thus, we learned that goulash is traditionally served in a gentleman’s hat, and that canoe-style seating arrangements were all the rage in London coffee houses. And, even as I hoped it wouldn’t end, at least for a while yet, I had to admire their excellent sense of timing, in knowing when to wrap it up as well as in choosing the moment to deliver their punch lines.
The next Austentatious performance will be at the Leicester Square Theatre on 20 October, which the Jane Austen Detectives highly recommended.
Featured image: The Austentatious cast.
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