Six female SERVANTS: ANNE, CLARA, EFFIE, FLO, MAISIE and TILLIE, in Regency-era servant’s dress populate the space, cleaning. The pace and intensity of cleaning increases until they eventually collapse.
One SERVANT begins to sing. Gradually, others pick up instruments and join in. An opening song – Elvis Costello and the Attractions’ ‘Everyday I Write the Book’ with a cry of –
TILLIE. Good evening!
– at the top of the instrumental.
The song concludes. They address the audience. They are welcoming, polite – but playful, too. EFFIE is exhausted.
MAISIE. Now – You won’t know who we are.
FLO. Well, there might be the faintest hint of recognition, amongst the fanatics.
CLARA. ‘Did you open a door once in Persuasion?’
ANNE. ‘Or serve up that inedible pudding in Mansfield Park?’
CLARA. But our names won’t come to mind.
ANNE/CLARA/FLO/MAISIE/TILLIE. You’ll probably get us all mixed up.
FLO. It’s okay. We’ve been expecting you. You’ve come to hear Miss Austen’s story.
TILLIE. The spare beds are made up.
MAISIE. We’ve bought the extra provisions from town.
FLO. Your modern sensibilities might make you feel a bit guilty about all that labour. Don’t worry.
MAISIE. Miss Austen has, in her wisdom, made us all different. Some at rest –
ANNE. Some at work.
CLARA. Some master –
TILLIE. Some servant.
CLARA (taking up ELIZABETH’s green dress). Some romantic hero –
MAISIE (swapping it for a mop). Some brief cameo.
TILLIE. Course – not everyone realises how integral we are.
FLO. You can’t write a novel without –
ANNE. Someone to empty the chamberpot.
MAISIE. Or, have a whirlwind romance without –
TILLIE. Clean bedding.
CLARA. Without us there would be no concertos, no prose, no portraiture, no –
TILLIE. What we’re saying is: You’re Welcome.
MAISIE (gently boastful). We feature in the books ourselves…
ANNE. Well, appear. Occasionally.
TILLIE. See, the things we do can end up making all the difference.
CLARA. Deliver that letter a little slower –
MAISIE. Top up that glass a little quicker –
TILLIE. And it’s such satisfying work. Seeing them walk off into the sunset. Knowing we all did our bit.
They smile. It’s a little forced. Something is unsaid.
CLARA. Shame about the wee… ‘oversight’ on Miss Austen’s part…
MAISIE. No ever-after for us.
ANNE. No love interests.
EFFIE (numb). No ending.
They turn and look at EFFIE. They mustn’t give in to despondency.
MAISIE (cheerily). Still – it’s reassuring to have a job for life.
ANNE. And they say servants who stay put are never short of true friends.
CLARA. So! You might not have spotted us – but rest assured, we were always there.
ANNE. Waiting for the bell to ring.
FLO. We probably knew what you needed before you did.
TILLIE. We have been doing this since 1796.
FLO. We’ve a clear purpose!
CLARA. Are always dependable –
CLARA. And what’s more, we’ve seen everyone –
ANNE. Absolutely everyone…
Beat. They eye the audience.
FLO. So, now we all know our place…?
EFFIE is offered the green dress. She smiles for the first time.
Everyone moves off.
MAISIE (to audience). The story starts here. A sleepy wee place, about halfway between London and Cambridge, called – Meryton.
A Regency dressing screen is placed. We establish Longbourn.
ANNE. There’s a bit of a problem with emotional repression here.
CLARA. So don’t be surprised if people burst into song every now and again.
FLO. For the ladies, in particular, there’s very little to do.
MAISIE. So they’re reliant on a steady import of gossip to help pass the time. Luckily, this week brought the exciting news that the landlord of Netherfield Park has finally found a tenant.
CLARA. One Charles Bingley. And he’s not local.
ANNE. No, no – this man is new! Just moved to the area.
CLARA. And not only is he rich enough to rent a place like Netherfield –
MAISIE. With a fortune to live off besides – !
CLARA. He’s also young, handsome and single.
ANNE. In this neighbourhood, if you’re not talking about the last town ball –
FLO. Or talking about the next town ball –
CLARA. It’s because you’re at the current town ball.
MAISIE. And they’re throwing one tonight! A chance for all the locals to present themselves to their new wealthy neighbour.
CLARA. After all – Meryton is home to many unmarried ladies. And it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man, in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
All at once lights change, the SERVANTS disappear, noises of a scrap, and MRS BENNET is spat out from behind the screen.
MRS BENNET. I give up! You are all impossible! (Ringing a small bell.) Tillie!
TILLIE (to the audience). Welcome! This Meryton household is known as Longbourn. And it is home to the Bennet family.
MRS BENNET. Tillie!
TILLIE. Coming! (To audience). This is my mistress, Mrs Bennet. She is mother to five unmarried daughters.
MRS BENNET. Help the girls on with their dresses, Tillie, or we’ll be late. Oh, it’s too much pressure! (Sucking on her inhaler.)
TILLIE. She’s a wee bit tense. You see, if the girls don’t have husbands by the time their da dies, they’ll all be destitute. Mrs Bennet included. Because in Regency-era England, women can’t inherit money or property.
TILLIE pulls the strings of a bodice – there is a yelp from behind the screen.
– Just breathe in a little, miss – I know that’s all changed since, but you can understand the logic at the time. Spinsters don’t need material things, do they? No coal for the fire? Probably having a nice hot flush. Who could get all that hungry when cats surround them in such huge numbers? Money? Ach, they’d only spend it on romance novels and Cinzano.
So these girls will only get to stay in their own home, with their own father’s meagre savings to live on, if one o...