On the 20 October, I went to see a production from a rapidly growing improvisation company, Austentatious, at the Y Theatre in Leicester. At any Austentatious show the cast and crew will walk through the aisles or the foyer handing out suggestion slips asking audience members to invent their own titles to Jane Austen novels. Out of these titles one will be chosen to be performed, and unsurprisingly, in the style of a Jane Austen novel.
The performance begins with cast member, Rachel Parris, improvising the part of a Jane Austen historian, hilariously attempting to explain some of the suggested titles as Austen’s lost works. Peter the Pythons Promised Land was Austen’s adaptation of Genesis, with Peter as the snake that tempts Eve. It was well read and a concept which came with no hesitation to Parris. The scene is seamlessly carried out and it can be argued that for a moment, audiences forget it is all improvised.
A final suggestion is read out: The Great British Bonnet Off, which ends up being the performance that we see. The show begins with Parris sewing a bonnet, and discussing with her brother, played by Joseph Morpurgo, the upcoming Bonnet Off which will be held, once again, in the tent. The pair go on to make numerous witty Bake-Off references.
It includes the fact that the tent is a terrible place to ‘make bonnets’ and that the heat will cause it to melt. They also suggest that Malcom Hollywoods’s – a now Bonnet-off contestant’s – eyes really do glisten blue. There are clever conventions put in place, to aid the actors in their improvisations. These include subtle tell-signs for scenes being cut because of actors crossing the stage, a cueing of the lights to fade in and out, and an on-stage pianist, who can emphasise the mood of the actors.
A personal highlight of the show, was following the revelation of Parris’ character, Lady Braxley. She had been cheating in the Bonnet Off for years, when two of her competitors set out a ruthless plan to harm her and equally discourage her from ever competing again. The plan eventually resulted in her being simultaneously punched in both of her hips. To anyone that was not present, this just seems like a silly improvised idea, but to the audience this had been a long building joke after one cast member, Amy Cooke-Hogson, accidentally punches Lady Braxley in the hip in a stage fight.
This is part of the charm of going to see an improvised piece as it allows for the audience and the actors to develop a comical and understandable rapport. It creates greater chances of genuine laughter and goes on to fuel the hilarity of the piece.
If I were able to pick out every hilarious moment of Austentatious’ performance of the Great British Bonnet Off, this review would run ten pages long. After seeing them perform once at Edinburgh Fringe Festival and again at the Y Theatre, all I can say is that every performance is unique and worth seeing.