The week in theater: Manor; The vagabonds’ daughter; Pride and Prejudice * (* in a way) | Theater

The world went to hell in a hand basket. Climate change is wreaking havoc: there are fish in the hedges, the dikes have burst. A far-right group called Albion is winning converts to a racist and misogynistic agenda. Oh, and the traditional country house game looks more doolly than ever. All these disturbances are intertwined in Manor, the clodhopping creation of the sister group Buffini – Moira (screenwriter) and Fiona (director). Everything is expressed twice: said and shown.

The Lez Brotherston cartoon screams that life is crooked: the stained glass windows lean at sharp angles; a rickety wooden staircase appears to have collided with a deer. The clouds shine: “sky overwhelming,” someone points out. Buffini (M), who subtly suggested so much about a changing England in his screenplay for Excavation, emphasizes here every bit of importance. The names claim a resonance: A girl named Isis apparently has rejuvenating powers, while Nancy Carroll, using her pinched vowels and ability to let elegance flow, plays a hunt-born woman named Diana.

The speeches are quite self-explanatory, exhibiting attitudes as if they were being served on platters. The plot is partly parody – stormy night, unexpected visitors, sinister stranger, sudden death, gay vicar. For it to work as a comedic engine, it has to be sleight of hand, but the pace is freezing. Shaun Evans has an insinuating good touch as an evil leader; Michele Austin is calmly an authority as an NHS worker and strengthens for good – but everyone is trapped in an old drafts pile.

The vagabonds’ daughter A superior musical jukebox declares itself from its neon pink beginning when a real jukebox is lit on stage as if it were a sacred relic. Jonathan Church’s sleek production then shows just how incisive the genre can be. Exuberant, of course: on a preview night, there was a lot of shoulder rolling and bellowing at Saturday Night at the Movies among the audience (aaargh largely unmasked). Yet the story of Faye Treadwell – the woman who made the Drifters a brand, though despised for being “a bird” and abused for being black – lands decisively, on light feet.

“Lots of Edge”: Beverley Knight, center, and the cast of The Drifters Girl. Photography: Johan Persson

An all-black cast plays its own abusers: in England, the group was asked to pay for hotel rooms before occupying them. Adam J Bernard and Matt Henry shine. Fay Fullerton’s costumes are perfect: from the ivory sheen of Beverley Knight’s hat and cinched coat to the sheen of the Drifters’ ultra-blue costumes. Vitally, Knight puts the songs as if she’s building something – her own way – out of them, not just by speaking out. There is a lot of edge, but hardly a sob in his voice. So much the better to be less torch and more flame.

I was delighted to learn that SpitLip’s Operation Minced Meat, tiny but formidable when first staged two years ago, has been so successful at Southwark Playhouse that it will return next year. The news coincided with the triumph in London of another unlikely musical parody: that of Isobel McArthur Pride and prejudice * (* sort of), which premiered at Tron in Glasgow in 2018.

Tori Burgess, Isobel McArthur, Hannah Jarrett-Scott, Christina Gordon and Meghan Tyler in Pride and Prejudice * (* sort of).
Servant class… Tori Burgess, Isobel McArthur, Hannah Jarrett-Scott, Christina Gordon and Meghan Tyler in Pride and Prejudice * (* sort of). Photography: Matt Crockett

McArthur heads a top notch cast (Tori Burgess, Christina Gordon, Hannah Jarrett-Scott, Meghan Tyler), who gives Jane Austen her own image: honoring her spirit and adding theirs – with hedgehogs from pineapple, karaoke and class consciousness. The untold work that sustains the household is recognized as the five women, wearing work petticoats and marigolds, crowd out of the closet under the stairs. They transform from anonymous servants of Austen to the Bennet family and their suitors by donning chic dresses or military jackets. And singing: Bésame Mucho, Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? Lizzie hums You are so vain to Darcy. When Lady Catherine de Bourgh swings like a flowerbed, head to toe in frills and red frills, she inevitably orders to be rocked to a song by her young relative Chris.

Patriarchy is casually swept aside: Mr. Bennet is represented by an empty armchair, an open newspaper, and an occasional puff of smoke. Crackles of resentment explode in the opening: oh the joy in the audience when the girls swear at their infuriating mom.

Ana Inés Jabares-Pita’s beautiful design goes straight to the point: a stepped staircase; a chandelier; a crucial vessel; hidden spaces; the secret life of a breathing novel.

Ratings (out of five)
The vagabonds’ daughter ??
Pride and prejudice * (* sort of) ??

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