I Want To Be In A Jane Austen Novel

(Harvest Rain Theatre)


Written by Joanna Butler

Pro-am production

I’m a great admirer of Harvest Rain, not just because they put on the kind of family-oriented theatre that most other Brisbane companies don’t bother with, but because of the opportunities they offer to young performers and writers to have a go and get some experience. It doesn’t always work, and some shows are much better than others, but it’s always good to see – and the audiences seem to have a whale of a time.

This was certainly the case on the last night of Joanna Butler’s play I want to be in a Jane Austen Novel , where the high school groupies screamed their heads off at every remark, even when it wasn’t funny. I suspect that the cast were letting things get a little out of hand, too, for it was the end of a sell-out season, and they were playing directly to a very partisan audience. But that’s the risk you take when you go to a show at the end of a run.

Ever since the darkly-brooding Colin Firth set young (and not so young) female hearts fluttering in his soaking wet trousers ten years ago, any young woman who can read, or at least see, wants to be in a Jane Austen novel, although I’m not sure how they would cope if they were literally transported back to the very trying middle-class world of the late 18th century – all that lack of privacy, lack of entertainment and having to be polite to insufferable people. The TV series made the life of Jane Austen’s characters seem much more interesting than they would have been in reality, and I suspect that the novels themselves are hard going even for romantic teenagers these days- just as I’m sure that all those kids who swooned over Baz Lurhmann’s Romeo + Juliet couldn’t cope with the text on the page.

Joanna Butler has made a creditable attempt in trying to bring both the novel and the current obsession with Dear Jane together into a workable play, and she’s to be congratulated for having it work well so much of the time. Her scenario is to offer parallel stories about the 18th century Pride and Prejudice and a 21st century woman’s desire to have the same kind of romance, and the play slips easily between the Pemberley drawing room and a modern school staffroom where Catherine Glavicic as Jen is heavily in lust with Colin Firth (well, aren’t we all?) and would rather be single than make do with anyone inferior.

The Harvest Rain website sums up the plot much better than I could, so here it is: “Jen isn’t looking for Mr Right. She’s looking for Mr Darcy. But the only tall, dark and brooding male in her life has four legs and a tail. So Jen takes the only possible route out. Jane Austen novels. But as the characters begin to take over her evenings, her weekends, even her work life, Jen starts to realise that maybe Mr Darcy isn’t what he’s cracked up to be. Maybe she wants someone from the real world….”

Jen’s forays into love lead her to interact with Jane Austen herself (Jess Loudon is suitably demure, although without JA’s often acerbic wit), and finally into the story, where she falls into the arms of Mr Darcy (a rather too self-conscious Matt Rossner). It doesn’t do her any good, of course, but is the basis for lots of hilarity, as are the parallels between the sanctimonious clergyman Mr Collins and the staff nerd Martin McMillan, both roles played with understated aplomb by the always pleasing Vanja Matula.

The trouble with the play is that it tries to do too much, and pack every possible kind of satire into every moment, no matter how inappropriate. There’s too much caricature in the characters, too, although how much of this is due to the inadequacies of the text and how much in the performers’ lack of discipline is hard to discern. As the Colonel in the Monty Python sketches used to say, “This is all getting extremely silly”, and even with the most willing attempt to suspend my disbelief, I couldn’t really accept that a high school teacher would only recognise a Tchaikovsky melody as a mobile ring tone, or that women in their mid-twenties would behave like fifteen-year olds suffering from hormone overdose.

Rather than classifying this as a potentially clever satire, I would say it’s more like an intelligent school romp, but with the judicious use of a blue pencil wielded by a professional dramaturg, and with a more experienced cast, and a director who isn’t blinded by the subjectivity of directing her own script, I think I want to be in a Jane Austen Novel might have a future. Perhaps Playlab could take it in hand.

In any case, Harvest Rain is to be congratulated once again for giving young talent a go. And they won’t have gone broke at the box office, either, so they score at least 2 out of 3.

Directed by Joanne Butler

Music director Kylie Morris

Played 20 October – 4 November 2006

Duration : about 2 hours 15 minutes including interval

— Alison Cotes
(Performance seen: Fri 3rd November 2006)