TV comedian Sara Pascoe on Pride and Prejudice

Sara Pascoe didn't read Pride and Prejudice until quite late on

Sara Pascoe didn't read Pride and Prejudice until quite late on - Credit: Archant

A big, bold and funny version of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice comes to York Theatre Royal this month, adapted by comedian of the moment, Sara Pascoe. Tony Greenway talks to her before rehearsals

It is a truth universally acknowledged (to borrow a phrase) that if you turn on your TV, there’s a very good chance that comedian Sara Pascoe will be on it. Have I Got News for You, 8 Out of 10 Cats, QI, Live at the Apollo, Never Mind the Buzzcocks, Taskmaster, Mock the Week... you name it, Pascoe’s done it. She’s also performed scene-stealing acting roles in various sitcoms, including The Thick of It, Twenty Twelve and W1A, and has now branched out into writing books. Her first, entitled Animal: The Autobiography of a Female Body, was published to good reviews in 2016, and she’s currently busy writing the follow-up. Then there’s her first love: stand-up comedy. She’s forever trying out new material on stage and has just returned from a successful run at the Edinburgh Fringe.

Pascoe comes to Yorkshire twice this month. Well, sort of. She’ll be appearing in person at the Humber Mouth literature festival in Hull on October 6th to talk about Animal but she’s also adapted a big, splashy new version of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice which runs at the York Theatre Royal for 10 days and is the big show of the new season billed as ‘a playful, truthful and occasionally disrespectful take on this brilliant novel.’ Don’t get uptight about the ‘disrespectful’ bit, says Pascoe, because Austen was a woman ahead of her time. ‘We kept thinking: what would Jane be doing now? What would she be writing? Whether she’d be blogging or writing opinion pieces, she would have rubbed people up the wrong way sometimes.’

Pascoe had worked with the director Susannah Tresilian on another short stage project — but this is her first stab at a full-length play and she was excited to be asked. ‘Susannah had read various stage adaptations that were very long, very dry and very Regency,’ she says. ‘So she thought: “Why don’t we ask a comedian to adapt a new version?”’

It therefore fell to Pascoe to find the funny in Austen although, she points out, that wasn’t difficult because even though Austen’s story is wrapped up in Regency language, it’s frequently hilarious. ‘I did English literature at university but didn’t read Pride and Prejudice until quite late on. I read Sense and Sensibility for pleasure first and realised how funny it was. People said to me: “Yes, Sara. That’s the main point about Jane Austen. She’s funny.” And I was like: “Oh my God! Why did no one tell me?!”’

Pride and Prejudice rehearsals - Rachel Partington, Bethan Mary-James and Olivia Onyehara Photo Step

Pride and Prejudice rehearsals - Rachel Partington, Bethan Mary-James and Olivia Onyehara Photo Stephen Cummiskey - Credit: Archant

Even if you haven’t read Pride and Prejudice or seen a TV or film adaptation of it, you probably know the story: the screechingly awful Mrs Bennet is constantly trying to marry off her five daughters, however unsuitable the suitor may be. Her second daughter, the witty and headstrong Elizabeth, is particularly incensed by her mother’s embarrassing pushiness — and outraged all over again when she meets the smouldering but arrogant Mr Darcy. I tell Pascoe I first read the novel at school, under extreme duress, aged 12. ‘Wow, I don’t know how you’d sell Pride and Prejudice to a 12-year-old boy,’ she says. “Come on, you’ll love it, it’s all about girls getting married.”’

If Pascoe’s first priority was to bring out the humour (‘in my first reading I underlined all the jokes’), her second was to make sure her adaptation wasn’t stuffy. ‘I was conscious of younger people who might be reading the book at school or who maybe don’t go to the theatre very often. I wanted to make sure that, for them, our production would be a really enjoyable experience. I don’t want teenagers coming out saying: “There you are. That’s why I don’t read old books or go to the theatre...”’

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Even so, Pascoe has brought out some serious themes that aren’t usually addressed in other adaptations. For example, Mrs Bennet is usually portrayed as unsympathetically ludicrous. ‘Even by today’s standards she would probably be the most awful person in any room,’ agrees Pascoe. ‘If we were all at a party and she turned up we’d say: “Oh, no! Who invited Mrs Bennet?” But, for me as a writer, her truth made absolute sense. She has five daughters who can’t inherit the house they live in and don’t earn any money, and she has a husband who probably has gout and is a long walk away from a heart-attack. How are they going to feed themselves when he dies? They have to basically sit there awaiting a proposal of marriage — and not in a romantic way, but in a desperate way. They don’t have any other option. That meant my first take on it was: “This isn’t a love story! These women have no choices!” So then I had to very gradually find that love story (between Elizabeth and Darcy) again.’

Pride and Prejudice has been filmed lots of times although perhaps the most famous of the lot is the BBC’s Colin Firth ‘wet shirt’ version from 1995. There have been homages and spoofs, too, including the comedies Bridget Jones’s Diary, Austenland, and a ‘mash-up’ novel called Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which was filmed in 2016, starring Lily James. ‘We’ve allowed ourselves a couple of nods to shirts off and zombies,’ reveals Pascoe mysteriously. What’s more, Emmy the Great, who wrote songs for Austenland, has written an original score for Pascoe’s adaptation.

Olivia Obyeharda, Matt Whitchurch and bethan Mary-James take a rehearsal break Photo: Stephen Cummis

Olivia Obyeharda, Matt Whitchurch and bethan Mary-James take a rehearsal break Photo: Stephen Cummiskey - Credit: Archant

Pascoe first came to prominence through her live stand-up work, and her attitude towards this part of her portfolio can best be described as ‘relaxed’. ‘I do stand-up every day,’ she says. ‘Usually I do the writing on the way to the gig. Yesterday I had a 50-minute train journey to the venue which was enough time for me to think up something to say when I got there.’

Really? You’re thinking up comedy an hour before you go on stage? ‘Yes,’ she says, and sounds almost surprised that I have to ask. ‘It helps to have a deadline. It makes you think: “Oh my gosh, I’d better work this idea out, then.” And it means that the day time is mine to work on other things, and I don’t have to do a proper job because stand-up pays the bills. I’d recommend it to anyone.’ Panel shows, meanwhile, are ‘a really nice, fun thing to do where they give you free white wine. They’re like dinner parties where you sit there, say things and try to make it funnier and funnier.’

Pride and Prejudice, though, is a new kettle of comedy fish because she’s written lines for other people to say. How will she feel when the curtains open and a group of actors start speaking her adapted dialogue? ‘I think that’ll be a nightmare,’ Pascoe admits cheerfully. ‘It’ll be really painful for me. I’m going to rehearsals next week and I’ve said to Susannah that she can’t let me talk in front of the actors, because I will tell everyone how to say their lines. I’ll be sitting on my hands trying not to shout out. I can’t imagine sitting in the audience, actually.’ But she says she will come up to York to see the production anyway. So if you hear a sudden yelling from the front of the stalls, it’ll be her.

Pascoe doesn’t know Yorkshire that well, but sees Pride and Prejudice — and her stand-up comedy shows and appearance at Humber Mouth — as an opportunity to rectify this. ‘Yorkshire has that romantic thing going on, doesn’t it?’ she says. ‘I know Leeds pretty well; and whenever I do a gig in York I can’t believe there is this insanely — insanely — beautiful place that I can reach easily on a train. When people come from abroad and see what we have in the UK, we’re so lucky. I’d like to get to know Yorkshire more.’ w

October 4th-14th

Pride and Prejudice York Theatre Royal 01904 623568