Another Fringe, another Jane Austen show. Promise and Promiscuity is a light-hearted one-woman romp, patchworking together Austen plots and throwing in a few songs for good measure. New Zealander Penny Ashton nimbly plays all of a remarkably large cast of familiar characters, as she tells the story of Elspeth Slowtree, a Lizzie Bennett-a-like who writes pirate fiction (Fifty Shades of Arrrrr) and must navigate the marriage market of Regency England.
There’s no faulting Ashton’s energy, enthusiasm and commitment, but it’s a shame that all the characters—from the repulsive suitor to the overbearing mother to the snobbish love rival—are so irritating. She goes for broke on the comedy voices and upper-class twit mannerisms, snorting, snickering and simpering as required.
Everyone in Promise and Promiscuity has silly names—Thomasina Jeggings, for example—and Ashton allows the modern world to—nudge-nudge—rudely intrude for comic effect. Cue laboured jokes about how much the young ladies enjoy big balls, and poetry recitals featuring the lyrics of Britney Spears. The show also enjoys a light-lacing of feminist hindsight, with Ashton cheerily refusing to let her heroine be entirely defined by a man.
Austen nerds—and if you’re not, why on Earth would you be watching?—are amply rewarded with lifted scenes and twisted lines from the original novels. There’s clearly an audience who are still hungry for Austen spin-offs, and many people watching found Ashton’s giddy character work and panto-broad jokes side-splitting. I found myself glowering like Mr Darcy at a house party.