Jane Austen fans get just what they want for the holidays in Royal MTC's Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley
Austen-inspired holiday show is predictable, but checks all the right boxes for light romantic comedy
The holiday-themed, Jane Austen-inspired play Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley was, according to a New Yorker interview with one of its writers, sketched out on Starbucks napkins after a discussion about the kind of show American theatre really needed.
And it feels like a play designed to check boxes. Inspiration from much-loved source material? Check. Romance? Check. Warm, fuzzy holiday setting? Check. Light and completely inoffensive humour? Check.
Formulaic though it may be, the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre's production of Miss Bennet demonstrates why the 2016 play has quickly become a hit — it's entertaining, heartwarming and smartly crafted.
As any diehard Austen fan will guess from the title, this play draws its inspiration from her beloved 1813 novel Pride and Prejudice. Austen's original followed the exploits of the five Bennet sisters, and particularly the courtship of Elizabeth Bennet (played here by Winnipeg-born Broadway star Samantha Hill) and Mr. Darcy (a suitably prim and dryly witty Eric Blais).
Playwrights Lauren Gunderson (barring Shakespeare, the most-produced playwright in the U.S. a couple of seasons back) and Margot Melcon set their "imagined sequel" a couple of years after that novel — and focus on Mary (Ellen Denny), the overlooked middle Bennet sister.
Bookish and serious to the point of being humourless, Mary is a gawkish but loveable heroine — smart, independent and scrappy.
She shows none of her sisters' interest in matrimony until the arrival, just days before Christmas, of the equally bookish and socially inept Lord Arthur de Bourgh (Nathan Howe) at Elizabeth and Darcy's home, Pemberley (fabulously realized in a sumptuous set by Gillian Gallow that's so striking, it earned its own round of applause on its opening night reveal).
A charmingly odd, though predictable, courtship ensues between the two misfits. But it's complicated by a surprising revelation late in the first act with the appearance of Mr. Darcy's former intended, Anne de Bourgh (Robyn Pooley, appropriately arch if sometimes too stiff).
Gunderson and Melcon's romantic comedy doesn't win points for originality — unlike, say, A Doll's House 2 (another sequel to a 19th-century favourite seen recently on the RMTC stage), it sticks closely to its inspiration in style. It is, like an Austen novel, mannered and measured — a style some will find stuffy, but which will be pleasing to Austen fans.
For a modern play, it's also surprisingly traditional in some ways. Ironically, with Alison Bechdel's Fun Home currently running down the street at RMTC's smaller theatre, Miss Bennet doesn't do well in the Bechdel Test — even while women are at its centre, most of their dialogue involves the men in their lives.
As well, its Christmas setting feels calculated. There's a repeated gag about the oddness of Elizabeth's decision to drop a tree in the middle of her home (Christmas trees not yet being a tradition in England), and it's a convenient excuse to bring the sisters together, but there's otherwise really nothing much to tie the story to the holiday season.
Even while working with familiar tropes, though, Gunderson and Melcon prove their skill as playwrights. Their characters are well drawn, with clear definition for each of the four Bennet sisters we meet (rounded out by Emily Meadows as the thoughtful eldest sister, Jane, and Tess Benger as the self-involved youngest, Lydia — poor Kitty gets written out of the action).
They craft their dialogue faithfully in Austen's style, but still manage to land lots of laughs for modern audiences — many of them coming from the excruciating but endearing awkwardness of central characters Mary and Arthur.
Skilled direction and some very fine performances also lift the material. Director Krista Jackson keeps the two-hour production (with intermission) moving at a lively pace, and her cast create memorable and likable characters.
Though the focus is the Bennet women, Blais as Darcy and Darren Martens as Bingley, Jane's husband, turn in polished and cleverly comedic performances as the two men who have already successfully navigated the Bennet family.
Benger, Hill and Meadows are delightful as Lydia, Elizabeth and Jane. They convey a genuine and touching sense of sisterhood.
The show belongs, though, to Denny and Howe as Mary and Arthur, and they turn in enchanting comic performances.
Denny conveys both the book smarts and social ineptitude of Mary beautifully, giving the central character both charm and gravity.
Howe's turn as the tightly wound Arthur is a marvellous bit of stage comedy, ranging from goofy physical gags to delightful awkwardness.
Together, he and Denny have a believable and winning romantic chemistry.
If you've come looking for depth and originality, you may feel like this is a bit of a lump of coal. For everyone else, though, Christmas at Pemberley is a sweet holiday treat.
Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley runs at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre's John Hirsch Mainstage until Dec. 21.