Austen Found; musical with an eighteenth century twist

Austen Found: The Undiscovered Musicals of Jane Austen
Devised by Penelope Ashton
Herald Theatre, Aotea Centre
Presented by ConArtists
Until October 31

Don’t be fooled by the title and the publicity, this little entertainment has very little to do with Jane Austen. It would be better to have called it The Undiscovered, Salacious Musicals of Jane Austen as conceived by Oscar Wilde and W S Gilbert set to the music of Arthur Sullivan and then edited by Penelope Ashton.

Most of the action takes place in various drawing rooms of late eighteenth century English country houses where we meet the daughters of an impoverished genteel family, the local lusty pastor, the equally local lusty son of the wealthy family and the lusty members of the local regiment.

They appear to have only one thing on their minds so the dialogue is full of subtle and not so subtle sexual innuendo of a very eighteenth century kind.

The show is largely spontaneous with the cast taking their cues from the audience and making up the dialogue and the songs as they go along. It must be spontaneous as no one could write such appalling dialogue with such silly rhymes couplets and even sillier blank verse.

It is a mixture of vaudeville, stand up comedy, black and white silent movies (with added sound) along with a touch of Sheridan’s malapropisms.

The singing by the individuals and cast is surprisingly good, borrowing from many sources including The Sound of Music and some more contemporary songs. Pianist Robbie Ellis does a superb job of the accompaniment and keeping up with the cast.

There is a minor triumph when the cast has to follow the pastor in a new psalm with each of them desperately trying to second guess what the next word will be.

Kathleen Burns as Elizabeth who is very good at sleeping and dreaming provides a witty character while Lori Dungey gives a strong performance with some subtle lines and acting.

Nigel Burrows as the pastor creates an impressive role and Christopher Neels does justice to several characters including one of the sisters.

Holding it all together is the irrepressible Penelope Ashton who makes this eighteenth century version of “Whose Line is it anyway” a great piece of comic melodrama.

Ultimately what makes the show work is the clarity of diction, great characters and the ease with which the characters move from one absurd situation to another.

There is no intellectual challenge, no insights into Austen just exposure to the vaguely demented mind of Penelope Ashton as she turns Jane Austen into Austin Powers