December 8, 2019

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Joy to the world of Pemberley

Holiday-themed sequel to Pride and Prejudice fills Santa's bag with charm

Arthur de Bourgh (Nathan Howe) and Mary Bennet (Ellen Denny) go a-courting while Mary's family discreetly observes. (Dylan Hewlett photo)</p>

Arthur de Bourgh (Nathan Howe) and Mary Bennet (Ellen Denny) go a-courting while Mary's family discreetly observes. (Dylan Hewlett photo)

One of the more startling historical details of Regency England, shown in the Royal MTC play Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberly, is a seasonal parlour game called "Snapdragon." A handful of raisins are placed in a bowl of brandy. The bowl is set aflame. The object of the game is to pluck a raisin out and pop it in your mouth while it is still afire.

Children would play this game.

Suffice to say there is no such danger in this comedic sequel to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice by contemporary American playwrights Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon. It's safe, pretty and unfailingly amusing.

The past of Pride and Prejudice is prologue here. The former Miss Elizabeth Bennet (Samantha Hill) is happily married to Mr. Darcy (Eric Blais), residing in the warm splendour of the Pemberley estate. Joining them are Elizabeth's elder pregnant sister Jane (Emily Meadows), likewise joyfully married to the doting Mr. Bingley (Darren Martens). Visiting for Christmas is the wild youngest sister Lydia Wickham (Tess Benger), a chronic flirt who insists to anyone who will listen that she has a joyful marriage to the absent cad and bounder Wickham.

PHOTOS BY Dylan Hewlett</p><p>Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley by Royal MTC.</p></p>

PHOTOS BY Dylan Hewlett

Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley by Royal MTC.

And then there's Mary (Ellen Denny), the middle sister whose pleasures are derived from losing herself in books or hammering away at the pianoforte, on an apparent mission to tame Beethoven. Mary expresses frustration at living with her parents with no prospects for the adventure and exploration she reads about in books.

A possible solution to that state arrives in the bumbling form of Arthur de Bourgh (Nathan Howe), an awkward academic who finds himself a man of property after the death of his aunt Lady Catherine de Bourgh, the Bennets' snooty antagonist in P&P. The spirit of Lady Catherine returns however, in the person of her bitter-pill daughter Anne (Robyn Pooley), who arrives dressed in mourning clothes to throw everybody for a loop at the end of the first act with a shocking pre-intermission declaration.

Playwrights Gunderson and Melcon have fashioned the Austen source material into something more resembling an Oscar Wilde comedy of manners, with the absurdity dialed down and the romance dialed up.

It's more challenging than it looks to deliver Austen-style dialogue with any kind of organic spontaneity, and most of the cast is up for that test. Denny holds the show's centre as the fierce Mary, whose smarts and self-awareness make her a fine foil to Howe's comparatively oblivious Lord Arthur. Howe's skill at physical comedy is especially formidable and it helps to distinguish these destined soulmates. In terms of dynamics, Denny is like the sturdy maypole around which Howe hilariously dances/stumbles.

Director Krista Jackson helmed last year's Royal MTC Austen offering Sense and Sensibility, which flaunted expectation with its airy, almost modernist set. Jackson commits to a more traditional show this time, staging the action on a high, wide and handsome single drawing room designed by Gillian Gallow. It's centred on a technically anachronistic Christmas tree and with snow falling behind a vast back window overlooking the Pemberley estate.

Lacking the surprise of a Christmas cracker, Christmas at Pemberley dutifully delivers everything on the Christmas list.

Snapdragon notwithstanding, no theatregoers are going to come away feeling burnt.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @FreepKing

<em>Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberly</em> is safe, pretty and unfailingly amusing. (Dylan Hewlett photo)</p>

Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberly is safe, pretty and unfailingly amusing. (Dylan Hewlett photo)

Randall King

Randall King
Reporter

In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.

Read full biography

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History

Updated on Saturday, November 30, 2019 at 9:36 AM CST: Correction: Lady Catherine de Bourgh is Arthur's aunt.

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