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Review: Pride & Prejudice at the Marlowe Theatre

PUBLISHED: 16:57 01 February 2017

Benjamin Dilloway and Tafline Steen as Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet (photo: Johan Persson)

Benjamin Dilloway and Tafline Steen as Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet (photo: Johan Persson)

Johan Persson

Sarah Sturt reviews the “perfect winter treat,” Pride & Prejudice performed at Canterbury’s Marlowe Theatre

I had the privilege of watching everybody’s favourite Jane Austen turned into a glorious romp at Canterbury’s Marlowe Theatre, where a revolving stage, magical setting, a wonderful ensemble cast and leads turned Pride & Prejudice into the perfect winter treat.

A sell-out on every night when it opened last September at London’s Regents Park outdoor theatre, the UK tour then headed for Kent, stopping off first in Bromley and now (revolving stage and all) in Canterbury until 4 February at the start of celebrations for the author’s bicentennial. I’d get booking without delay.

As a massive Jane Austen fan I’ll admit to approaching the adaptation by Simon Reade with caution: would it still be ‘my’ Austen? I wasn’t to be disappointed, especially as I had the privilege of speaking to its two young stars, Tafline Steen (Elizabeth Bennett) and Benjamin Dilloway (Mr Darcy) before the performance.

Tafline, an elfin 5ft 3in with long, curly dark hair, admits the first time she read Pride & Prejudice was last year. “I love reading, but growing up I was a bit of tomboy and enjoyed novels about outer space and adventures rather than Jane Austen,” she tells me.

She had also pictured herself as the plain, bookish Mary Bennett – “I think she’s hilarious and it’s such a wonderful part” – but auditioned for Elizabeth as the material was stronger. To her great surprise, she got the part.

“I always thought she was much cooler than I was so I never really saw myself in her shoes. So it’s all credit to Deborah Bruce, our director, that Elizabeth was totally up for grabs, she didn’t have a set idea of what she wanted her to be.”

Tafline only graduated from drama school in 2013 and almost immediately got cast as Jess in The Almeida Theatre’s production of King Charles III, which ran for two years, followed by her current lead role. But she says she still has a so much to learn. “My school was very sporty and although I did do school musicals and things like that, doing drama out of school just didn’t crop up. So I came to drama school as a bit of a novice about theatre and the craft of acting.”

A formative experience happened to the young Tafline at five or six when she was taken to see a Noel Coward at The Minnack Theatre in Cornwall. While the detail of the play is long forgotten, the memory of the extreme weather conditions and the actors’ resilience remains crystal clear.

Pride & Prejudice (photo: Johan Persson)Pride & Prejudice (photo: Johan Persson)

“The mist was rolling off the sea and the heavens just opened and it absolutely pelted down,” she recalls. “I remember the actors disappearing for a few minutes, coming out in clear ponchos and just carrying on.

“They totally powered through, but were completely upstaged because this tempestuous storm was coming in and the sea was crashing up on the rocks. I remember thinking it felt, in that real Greek way, a communion of people, nature and art and that this was something really special.”

And Tafline’s Elizabeth Bennett is something really special too, full of wit and vivacity, as the spirited second eldest daughter with a tendency to judge on first impressions learns to overcome her ‘prejudice’ and realise that in Mr Darcy, she truly has met her equal in life and love.

In the actor Benjamin Dilloway, Tafline has the ideal foil – tall, dark and broodingly handsome, he even has the perfect features for Darcy. “I have a bit of a resting disdainful face, if you’re sat right down at the front I look really disdainful, the further back you go not so much – the lights help,” he laughs.

“A lot of the other characters do a lot of the work for me, because Darcy is not on stage that much, although he is spoken about all the time. Tafline is never off the stage, which is why I find it really odd that the whole play is about Mr Darcy, because you simply don’t see him that much. It says so much about society at the time.”

The actor, who graduated from LAMDA in 2010, shares his co-star’s admiration for their director and for composer Lillian Henley, whose music effortlessly threads throughout the play.

“I’ve never come into a remount of a show and I can’t imagine anyone dealing with it better than Deborah and Lilian because we have created a new show, we were never told what to do and they both facilitated us doing that.

“Whatever ideas you come with for a scene, that’s what you go with, even if Deborah doesn’t really think it’s the right direction, which is rare. She never imposes. And Lily was entirely present throughout the rehearsal process which was really lovely because she’s changed certain parts determining on what we are doing.

Matthew Kelly as Mr Bennet (photo: Johan Persson)Matthew Kelly as Mr Bennet (photo: Johan Persson)

“We didn’t have long to prepare either, only a month, but it’s been amazing and I have really enjoyed it.”

The stellar cast also includes the Olivier Award-winning Matthew Kelly (Of Mice and Men, Educating Rita, Waiting for Godot) and Felicity Montagu (Alan Partridge, Bridget Jones’s Diary, The Durrells) as a perfectly observed Mr and Mrs Bennet.

In the comedy stakes, my award goes to Steven Meo, whose Mr Collins is priceless: his ballroom-scene attempts to cut in on the dancing while still twirling and kicking his heels in the air will have you laughing out loud (and nearly caused even stern-faced Darcy to ‘corpse’ on stage; he didn’t, but admits it was close).

The production has also enabled Benjamin to act on a revolving stage for the first time, which he describes as “allowing an effortless filmic swipe between scenes.” He cites the excruciating dinner with Mr Collins as a perfect example of why it works so well.

“The whole scene is static and it’s a very dull dinner, but this device allows you to see the different expressions on the guests’ faces as it turns, which is just brilliant. It was odd getting your sea legs at first, it goes at a bit of a lick and when you get off, you still feel as if you’re moving. We’ve got used to it now but the first week I really thought I was going to be sick!”

With a production this delicious taking place in a county with so many Austen links at the start of the author’s bicentennial celebrations, do make sure to book as soon as possible.

To book at The Marlowe Theatre: www.marlowetheatre.com

For a full tour listing visit www.prideandprejudiceplay.com

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