Hazard a guess: what was on everyone’s mind in a crowded West End theatre last night? When Andrew Hunter Murray, of Jane Austen-inspired improv group Austentatious, began to warm up the audience by asking for title suggestions for her “lost” masterpieces, it quickly became clear. Captain of the Corona Corral. Pride and Panic Buying. The Forbidden Death Dance. “Prescient, wasn’t she?” observed Murray drily.
Fortunately, for this nervous crowd, laughter proved the best medicine and this sharp, self-aware, totally deranged six-man band of regency-frocked young comedians delivered enough of it to stock-pile.
Just as Lizzy Bennet rose from penny-pinching in Hertfordshire to Darcy’s magnificent estate, so Austentatious have gone from tiny pub gigs in Leicester Square, to sell-out runs at the Edinburgh Free Fringe and a cult following, in the space of a decade. Now, they are beginning an extended Monday night residency at the Fortune theatre.
More comedy supergroup than full-time ensemble, each member has an entirely separate career beyond empire lines and tense teatimes. Cariad Lloyd is an award-winning solo comic and hosts the popular podcast Griefcast; Murray is a researcher for quiz show QI, and writes for Private Eye magazine.
But when the curl papers come out, they are 100% regency (kind of). Each show is an improvised staging of a “lost” Austen novel. At this performance they sensibly steered clear of anything too topical, and fixed upon another audience suggestion: Northanger Crabbies, a drama of forgotten siblings, crotch-swabbing parlour maids and corruption in the cider industry.
After quickly sketching out some classically Austenian contours – a moneyed brother and sister move into a neighbourhood to rattle the corset stays of its old families – they merrily proceeded to give a masterclass in how to take a rule book and rip it to shreds. The witchy Miss Carsons (the stand-out Amy Cooke-Hodgson and Rachel Parris) searched for the sister they lost on the moors 17 years earlier (“We really should have looked harder at the time”); the evil Mr Sampson (a ludicrously good-looking Daniel Nils Roberts) plotted a hostile takeover of the local orchards, while Murray doubled as the weedy Lord Northanger and an astonishingly creepy apple tree. As ever with good improv, you really had to be there.
These are comedians at the top of the game, and watching them watch each other, responding moment-by-moment to new ideas, each one more daft than the last, is an absolute pleasure. They are at their most impressive when committing to something objectively insane and sticking with it to the bitter end; on Monday night, one early moment of confusion over what exactly a breech delivery is culminated in Murray giving birth through his mouth, and believe me, it was even weirder than it sounds.
Such comfortable onstage fun makes me yearn slightly for the conviviality of a pub gig, rather than the cramped crush of the Fortune bar, which suffers like so many West End theatres for lack of space. The two-hour running time is also a bit of an overkill for what the show is – a shorter, sweeter set in a more comfortable, better hydrated setting would go a long way.
But it’s really quite difficult to find fault with the show itself. Even the moments when the cast’s ideas don’t quite work are enjoyable. One actor will try something that leaves another completely baffled, and for a glorious few seconds the mask slips, and they stand staring at each other, in paroxysms of laughter and confusion. There is no great literature here: just young British talent enjoying each other’s cleverness. And if they want to do it in bonnets, so much the better.