The beautiful reception room of the Mayor’s Winchester residence was the perfect setting for Pies and Prejudice, an amusing exploration of the importance of food in Jane Austin’s letters and novels. As Austin was born and lived in the Hampshire village of Chawton before moving to Winchester, Abbey House was a particularly fitting location, with the venue and costumes (on loan from neighbouring Chesil Theatre) transporting us back to Regency England.
Cecily O’Neill’s short (30-minute) play concerns the observations and opinions of two female characters on food, health, gardening and marriage – all topics that Austin referred to in great depth in her writings.
I expected the two-hander to feel like a ‘fly-on-the-wall’ experience in such intimate surroundings, which proves you should never go to see live theatre with preconceived ideas!
Jilly Bond (Charlotte, lady-of-the-house) and Stacy Hart (her protégé cook, Jenny) both quickly established an engaging rapport with the audience and each other. Although there were conversational moments between Charlotte and Jenny, most of the dialogue was delivered directly out to the audience. It felt like we were being effortlessly drawn into their confidence as they shared their thoughts and observations with us, rather than watching a staged production. Their contrasting accents, subtle nuances and natural mannerisms combined to portray genuine personalities, as well as reflecting the distinctions of class and status between the two characters, while the occasional pithy references to Southampton added extra humour to their remarks.
It can be easy for an audience’s attention to drift during long asides but as ‘Lady’ Charlotte drifted amongst the audience to speak more confidentially with them, my eye was caught by two children in the front row. Although some of the double entendres may have gone over their heads, they both appeared to be completely transfixed by the actors’ portrayals. Children can be the harshest and most honest of critics, so the way they were enthralled and responsive to both actors speaks volumes for the sincerity and quality of their performances.
Combined with Rachel O’Neill’s expert direction, Cecily O’Neill’s adaption of Austin’s original material and an authentic setting in Abbey House, Pies and Prejudice was a slick-paced, delightfully charming and genteel production.