The week in theatre: Manor; The Drifters Girl; Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of)

·4 min read

The world has gone to hell in a handbasket. Climate change is wreaking havoc: there are fish in the hedgerows, the sea walls have burst. A far-right group called Albion is winning converts to a racist and misogynist agenda. Oh, and the traditional country house play looks more doolally than ever. All these derangements are intertwined in Manor, the clodhopping creation of the Buffini sister act – Moira (writer) and Fiona (director). Everything is expressed twice over: said and shown.

Lez Brotherston’s cartoon cut-out design screams that life is askew: stained-glass windows lean at acute angles; a rickety wooden staircase seems to have collided with a stag. Clouds glower: “overwhelming sky,” someone points out. Buffini (M), who subtly suggested so much about a changing England in her screenplay for The Dig, here underlines every scrap of significance. Names clamour for resonance: a girl called Isis apparently has rejuvenating powers, while Nancy Carroll, coasting on her pinched vowels and ability to drip elegance, plays a woman born to the hunt called Diana.

Speeches are utterly explicit, laying out attitudes as if serving them up on platters. The plot is part parody – stormy night, unexpected visitors, sinister stranger, sudden death, gay vicar. For this to work as a comic motor it needs to be helter-skelter hocus-pocus, but the pace is glacial. Shaun Evans has a good insinuating touch as the evil leader; Michele Austin is calmly authoritative as an NHS worker and force for good – but everyone is trapped in a draughty old pile.

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

An all-black cast play their own abusers: in England the band were asked to pay for hotel rooms before they occupied them. Adam J Bernard and Matt Henry shine. Fay Fullerton’s costumes are spot on: from the ivory sheen of Beverley Knight’s pillbox hat and waisted coat to the shine of the Drifters’ ultra-blue suits. Vitally, Knight puts the songs over as if she were building something – her own path – from them, not merely expressing herself. There’s plenty of edge, but scarcely a sob in her voice. All the better for being less torch and more flame.

I was delighted to hear that SpitLip’s Operation Mincemeat, tiny but terrific when first staged two years ago, has been having such a successful run at Southwark Playhouse that it will return next year. The news coincided with the London triumph of another unlikely musical spoof: Isobel McArthur’s Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of), which was first staged at the Tron in Glasgow in 2018.

McArthur leads a top-notch, top-knotted cast (Tori Burgess, Christina Gordon, Hannah Jarrett-Scott, Meghan Tyler), who give their own glint to Jane Austen: honouring her wit and adding their own – along with pineapple hedgehogs, karaoke and class consciousness. The untold labour that supports the households is acknowledged as the five women, wearing workaday petticoats and Marigolds, squeeze themselves out of the cupboard under the stairs. They transform themselves from Austen’s anonymous servants into the Bennet family and their suitors by slipping on posh frocks or military jackets. And singing: Bésame Mucho, Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? Lizzie croons You’re So Vain to Darcy. When Lady Catherine de Bourgh sways on like a walking flowerbed, head to toe in red frills and flounces, she inevitably commands to be serenaded with a song by her young relative Chris.

The patriarchy is breezily brushed aside: Mr Bennet is represented by an empty armchair, an open newspaper and an occasional puff of smoke. Crackles of resentment explode into the opening: oh the joy in the audience when the daughters swear at their maddening Mama.

Ana Inés Jabares-Pita’s beautiful design goes to the core of things: a sweeping staircase; a chandelier; a crucial vase; hidden spaces; the secret life of a novel given breath.

Star ratings (out of five)
Manor

The Drifters Girl ★★★
Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of) ★★★★

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