Downstairs at Darcy’s

The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley (Growl Theatre)

Windsor School of the Arts

November 19 – December 12

The concept of “The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley” is clear from the outset of Growl Theatre’s production of the charming Christmas-themed story. The Regency-era romance takes its audience immediately into the downstairs kitchen world of The Wickhams of Jane Austen’s classic novel of manners “Pride and Prejudice”, where nothing ever changes…. until it does when the household staff encounter a holiday scandal while the Bennetts and Darcys are celebrating upstairs during a festive time of puddings with raisins and many, many orangey biscuits

As a companion piece to the company’s 2020 Christmas production, “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley”, the show, likewise, represents a continuation of Austen’s popular novel. Elizabeth (Melanie Kempton) and Darcy (Ewan Paterson) are married and living at his grand country estate Pemberley, where her sister Lydia (Bella Mott) is joining them for Christmas. Enter an uninvited late-night visitor in the form of Mr Darcy’s infamous sworn enemy and Lydia’s horribly flawed husband George Wickham (a cheekily charismatic Tyler Harris) and busy holiday preparations must be balanced with keeping his presence undiscovered, all while being interrupted by a parade of guests from upstairs.

The addition of new secrets to old misunderstandings soon sees things start to spiral out of control to great comic effect. Indeed, written as it is in regency style, the text includes both the entanglements and ironic and satirical style of humour that typifies Austen’s work. But there are also moral considerations such as the conflict between generosity or judgement. And, in addition to offering commentaries on class and privilege, there are also warm and fuzzy themes around family and forgiveness, suited to the festive season’s sentiments.

The production, like the estate is helmed by earnest, no-nonsense housekeeper Mrs Reynolds (an endearing Dale Murison). Of most early note, however, is the appearance of the resilient young serving girl Cassie, newly hired to help prepare the house for its many festive season guests. Ciara-Mei Cheng is simply wonderful as the fiercely independent young orphan, full of feminism and speaking the most sense of anyone. Her budding romance with childhood friend, Head Footman and part-time inventor Brian (Sam Hocking), also layers the story with tension as the audience looks upon his fixation with fondness, thanks to Hocking’s nervous energy and well-placed smitten smiles.

Paterson is appropriately stately in stature and demeaner as the now somewhat less aloof Darcy, while as the heroine of Austen’s novel, Kempton casts a calming demeaner over things, even when torn between loyalty to her husband and sister. And Mott is perfect as the flighty, flibbertigibbet Lydia, the most adventurous and first to marry of the Bennett girls, giving the reckless and impulsive youngest sister some depth in her conversations with Cassie, vulnerability in interaction with George and ultimate development of her own sense of self.

Aside from some lengthy pauses in scene transitions, “The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley” is a well-crafted welcome back to Regency-era romance, with notable of-era costumes (design by Anne Grant) and staging (set design by Jason Sharland). While of course appreciation of its nuances will come more easily to literary fans of Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”, the relationships and emerging plots are clear enough for anyone to follow and its playfully feminist spirit is sufficiently embedded for everyone to appreciate.

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