Review – Austentatious

Saturday, April 07 2012

Austentatious, the long-form improv show that lampoons Jane Austen novels, is classy and accessible – more Blackadder than BBC4, writes Sarah Sharp


Ah, Jane. Jane, Jane, Jane; how we love thee. But just why are there so many screen adaptations of Emma out there? This question is made even more pertinent by the recent discovery that, far from the measly six we usually credit her with, Jane Austen in fact wrote no fewer than 768 novels. They've been found all over – in walls, piles of dirt, ladies' hats ... And the Milk Monitors are determined to bring you each and every one.

On Tuesday nights this humble band assembles in the Wheatsheaf, Fitzrovia, to perform a hitherto unknown book by dearest Jane. The title of this work is drawn from a hat, filled with audience suggestions. Until it is read out onstage, no one, Monitor or otherwise, has a clue what that title will be. Oh, you scoff, but I bet they do; I bet they have some little inkling; I bet they secretly rifle through when they think no one is looking and pick the one most promising of mirth. I think not. On the night I attended, the chosen title of the evening was …The Pedestrianisation of Norwich City Centre. I don't care how good you get at improv, no one's that much of a masochist.

Thankfully, the Milk Monitors are improv pros and bloody brilliant at what they do. From Lady Celestine's rapidly expiring shelf-life ('Unmarried ladies of 27 turn to mush, sister!') to Lord Bastard's establishment of the independent kingdom of Bastardia, the night took us through many unexpected twists and turns and somehow did manage to end up with the all important pedestrianisation of Norwich city centre.

As an improv group the Milk Monitors are very well attuned to one another. Austentatious has just celebrated its one year anniversary, and before that they were already in cahoots together in the Oxford Imps – but such familiarity, with the format and with each other, never goes so far as to become stale. They riff, quip and eulogise with the kind of alacrity that would have made Jane proud.

Although there's no oneupmanship to undermine proceedings, the Milk Monitors are not above the odd mischievous challenge. One scene opened with a character asking her companion to recite the charming rhyme he had for this occasion. In iambic pentameter. He responded with some nonsense, then observed – "iambic pentameter, notoriously the most flexible of the English metres". Ultimately the show achieves what all the best improv aspires to – to make you feel you're in safe hands, but also that it might spiral out of control any second.

Austen-illiteracy – indeed, complete illiteracy – is no bar to enjoyment. Clever and self-referential as Austentatious can be, it's more Blackadder than BBC4. Silliness and sophistication are in perfect harmony, and running gags with mimes and props add a dollop of absurdity to proceedings. Polished off with the charming accompaniment of live cello to enhance the mood, this is a thoroughly delectable evening. So put down your needlework, loosen your corset, and leave all hopes of sophistication at the door. You'll be giggling like a moron by the end.

4.5 stars

Review written by Sarah Sharp


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