Reviewed – 23rd January 2018
“a cast of actors who clearly enjoy performing together and challenging one another”
As a darling of the Edinburgh Fringe, Austentatious features some of the most prominent improv performers working in the UK today. The premise of the show is very, very simple: based on a single made-up title, the cast improvise a full play based on a fictional work of Jane Austen, where anachronisms, quick-wittedness, and the rigors of Regency etiquette collide. Austentatious features live musical accompaniment (improvised, of course) from the piano and violin.
Austentatious is riotously funny. The characteristic formality and stiffness of the epoche is fertile territory for the cast, who clearly revel in poking fun at the outdated setting. What’s more, this is a cast of actors who clearly enjoy performing together and challenging one another; Rachel Parris and Cariad Lloyd, in particular, have the peculiar gift of being able to smile as sweetly as sugar while making life as hard and as hilarious as possible for their fellow performers. The result is a constant stream of belly laughs, ably assisted by musicians and lighting technicians responding to the madness – and even getting a few laughs of their own.
Unfortunately, while other improvised shows may take a plethora of audience suggestions from the outset or demand suggestions on an ad hoc basis, the only suggestion that is taken from the audience in Austentatious is the supposed title of the story. The title given to the performance I watched, Don’t Look Back In Northanger Abbey, influenced only one aspect of the performance; the name of one of the characters. There was otherwise nothing that could not have been prepared beforehand and, therefore, despite being entirely improvised, Austentatious completely fails to offer the audience members the treat of seeing their obscure and wanton suggestions come to life on-stage. Unused suggestions were collected by the cast to be read out at the end as bonus jokes, but this brief section did not occur, presumably for time constraints. However, the cast did find time onstage to plug their merchandise, which struck me as a misplaced priority.
Instead, the story unfurls purely from the heads of the actors, and, despite the hilarity, Don’t Look Back in Northanger Abbey, never really went anywhere. In particular, the characters and plot were mostly very poorly-defined, which is a shame, given that they had not exposed themselves to the danger of audience input. This created a funny but rather static-feeling performance that was somehow at odds with the ‘anything can happen’ attitude improvisation demands. It is easy to imagine that, with so little input from the audience and the stock tropes of the Jane Austen genre, one Austentatious show might feel very much the same as another.
Clearly, running into its sixth year, the cast still haven’t run out of steam, as the show maintains an impressive following of appreciative fans. The question is, with such a talented group of performers, how long it will remain fresh and whether it will be strangled by its own success.
Reviewed by Matthew Wild
Photography by Robert Viglasky
Next Performance 13th February at Piccadilly Theatre