It is a truth universally acknowledged that an actress making her professional debut should not do so in scintillating fashion, taking the leading role in a production at a major London theatre.
The correct and polite course of action is, of course, to work your way up from lesser roles.
But as Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet doesn’t conform to society’s rules, neither does Jennifer Kirby, who is yet to graduate from LAMDA but in the Regent’s Park Open Air theatre’s production of Pride And Prejudice already proves a compelling leading lady. Her Elizabeth is forthright without being bolshy, confident without being arrogant, sharp-witted without being a know-it-all. She is, in fact, perfectly measured, the picture of a strong young woman brave enough to stand up to society’s preconceptions about womanhood.
Austen’s timeless classic finds Rebecca Lacey’s endearingly irritating Mrs Bennet in a constant tizz about marrying off her quintet of daughters to any man with a healthy income. When Yolanda Kettle’s quietly compliant Jane catches the eye of the area’s latest eligible batchelor, Rob Heap’s sweet-hearted Mr Bingley, all seems to be going well, until a certain Mr Darcy sticks his brooding nose into things.
There are no moments of iconic pond diving for David Oakes’ Mr Darcy, though this classic figure of romantic fiction is, in his hands, suitably aloof and detached, standing, brow furrowed, as though a waft of something unpleasant has infiltrated his better class of nostrils.
Austen’s famous tale of class and the plight of women fits elegantly on one of London’s most beautiful stages. Max Jones’ iron fencing set, both simple and ornate, grand yet reserved, sits neatly amid the trees like a great gate, an entrance to a world where women are defined by marriage and have few prospects as singletons.
Deborah Bruce’s direction fits the same mould, allowing the story to be told without fuss but adding the odd flourish; the cast looking on from the rear of the stage like the close knit community that thrives on gossip, and stepping forward to become full size portraits.
Ed Birch, too, makes his mark as pastor and potential suitor Mr Collins, all limbs, teeth and hair, a contortion both physically and metaphorically of good manners.
On a summer’s night, which begins bathed in dappled sunlight but features the hint of a bite in the air by the end, bugs darting through the lamp light, this production of Austen’s classic in an idyllic setting is the most quintessentially English of enjoyable theatrical evenings.