Dear reader, your sleep-deprived, pavement-pounding and improv-addicted reviewer had been yearning to see this Edinburgh Fringe institution (now in its seventh year) for as long as he could remember. In 2019, on an inclement Sunday afternoon, he finally had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of the dastardly, dashing and debonair troupe of actors who operate under the Austentatious banner.
It has certainly been worth the wait. Austentatious is about the most fun imaginable at the festival and the cast deliver an hour of sheer delight dripping in light smut and constant subversion and parody of Jane Austen’s literary tropes, such as gender inequality, handsome suitors and lovelorn ladies.
“About the most fun imaginable at the festival”
The show begins with an academic introduction delivered by Graham Dickson as a professorial figure, who pompously promises that, based ‘academic research conducted by myself’, they will unveil and stage a lost Austenian text. This is a neat way in which to facilitate audience suggestions for the afternoon’s title and also echoes the work of previous parodists, such as the Reduced Shakespeare Company and The School of Night, both of whom loosely frame their comic productions as academic endeavours.
The chosen name for this iteration is ‘Absinthe & Insensibility’, which precipitates a Moulin Rouge-themed hour of alcohol-induced scandal and a travelling circus being driven from the town due to their unruly ways. The climax to the improvised narrative is a hoot and interesting enough to keep the audience engaged – the girls get the boys, the elderly father is displeased and the local priest turns out to be rather handsome – but it is the route by which we arrive that makes this show such a delight.
The troupe’s mannerisms and modes of speech feel authentically Austenian and, as with any successful parody or improv show, there is a clear and evident passion for the source material. There is also enough visible ‘joins’ in the fabric of the impromptu scenes – actors hovering side stage and frequently on the brink of corpsing – for the spontaneity to feel authentic, which sets it apart from lesser examples of the genre.
The outstanding performers on this particular day are Joseph Morpurgo as the aforementioned priest – who speaks in tongues and insists on having at least one item between himself and a woman at all times – and Charlotte Gittins, who is wonderful as our Austenian heroine, full of quavering strength and witty, incongruous remarks about the inequality inherent in the period which she lives. Some truly brilliant lines are delivered by these two across the hour, from Gittins’s ‘his tongue is coated in continents’ to Morpurgo’s metatheatrical confession, after lifting his shirt to reveal a hairy chest, that ‘ten years ago this would’ve been a genuine anxiety dream’.
There is also fantastic accompaniment on the piano by Dylan Townley, who plays soft, melodious lines that never impose upon the action and merely add greatly to the general ambience. The one point of critique is that the show begins to flag ever so slightly around the forty-minute mark when the cast introduce more directly physical, slapstick material and, personally, I found their linguistic gymnastics to be a far more pleasurable element.
Overall, Austentatious fully deserves it place as a firm Fringe favourite and I warmly recommend it to all Austen devotees and anyone who should care to have their socks knocked off by six performers at the very top of the improv game.
Austentatious runs at Underbelly, Bristo Square – McEwan Hall at 13:00 until 25th August. Austentatious will tour from October so take a look at their website for dates and locations of future performances.
Image: Robert Viglasky