Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley. Send your regrets.

The Arts Club Theatre is producing Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley

In Christmas at Pemberley, you see this moment coming from miles away. Leagues. Light years. (Photo of Kate Dion-Richard and Matthew MacDonald-Bain by David Cooper)

Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley is going to do very well at the box office—but not because it’s good.

Co-written by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon, the play is a sequel to Jane Austen’s novel, Pride and Prejudice. With her husband, the dashing Darcy, Lizzy now presides over a grand estate called Pemberley. But the script focuses on Mary, the middle of the five Bennet sisters. As the siblings—minus Kitty, who is written out—gather for Christmas at Pemberley, the bookish Mary moans, “I shall never find a husband!”, so we know immediately that she will. And, when Darcy mentions that his cousin Arthur has just come into a huge inheritance, it’s clear exactly who her groom will be. (In stories like this, money is always a central player.)

The predictability is relentless. Mary has been going on about how she lives in her mind and how she loves to take imaginary journeys through the atlas. When Arthur finally arrives, he goes straight for that book of maps. “Much like you,” he tells Mary, “I travel on paper and in ink.”

Then the play tries to pretend that their marriage isn’t inevitable.

Diverting delivery can make predictability bearable. But, despite the halo of literacy and wit that the play enjoys because of its association with Pride and Prejudice, the script relies on more rough-hewn humour. When Lizzie says that Darcy is doing his best to get her pregnant, Mary says, “Would he like me to instruct him on the mechanics?”

And, under Roy Surette’s direction, overacting mars this production. There’s a baseline of credibility to Kate Dion-Richards’s Mary—she can be touchingly vulnerable—but Dion-Richards repeatedly betrays her characterization with crude takes and vulgar comic business (falling over the furniture when she’s flustered, for instance.) As the coquettish sister Lydia, Baraka Rahmani, finds one transparent moment of honesty, but her flirtatiousness with Arthur is ridiculously overstated.

Fortunately, Lauren Jackson brings more human-scale warmth and practicality to Lizzie. The supporting men (Chris Walters as Darcy and Tim Carlson as Bingley, another of Mary’s brothers-in-law) are solid. And Matthew MacDonald-Bain delivers hands-down the best performance of the production as the gormless Arthur. MacDonald-Bain fills his portrait with genuine feeling, which creates spontaneity and even an element of surprise so, when Arthur flaps his arms and gasps for breath in panic because he realizes he’s falling in love, he’s both believable and charming.

One of the things that you hope for with a period piece like this is spectacular design—by which I mean great dresses. Amy McDougall’s costumes are mostly pedestrian, however. A plot device named Anne arrives in a striking hat and coat, but they are the exceptions. And there’s no overall coherence to the costumes.

I did appreciate the extravagant wallpaper in Ted Roberts’s set, however. (Seriously.)

The play concludes with an unlikely—and unsustainable—feel-good resolution.

But Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley is getting done absolutely frickin’ everywhere. Why? I think the association with Austen allows audiences to flatter themselves that they are consuming accredited culture. Fantasies of wealth and romance can be seductive. (When love was, inevitably, declared, I teared up. I can’t help myself.) And folks do like a happy ending.

But don’t be fooled. Save your money. Christmas is coming. You’ll need it.

MISS BENNET: CHRISTMAS AT PEMBERLEYBy Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon. Directed by Roy Surette. An Arts Club production at the Granville Island Stage on Wednesday, November 21.  Continues until December 30.Tickets.

 

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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