Heading to Bexhill: an improvised comedy play in the style of Jane Austen

There were dark moments when the company feared they would never be back.

Amy Cooke-Hodgson           AUSTENTATIOUS

But thank goodness they are up and running now on tour.

Former Chichester girl Amy Cooke-Hodgson is delighted to be on the road again with Austentatious, promising an entirely different improvised comedy play in the style of Jane Austen each night.

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Their Bexhill on Sea date is coming up on October 31 at the De La Warr Pavilion before a November stint in the West End. They restarted in mid-September – their first dates in a long, long time.

Amy, who was a student at Chichester High before going on to study at Oxford, said: “We stopped literally on the day that Boris Johnson shut the theatres. We were on stage in costumes ready to do the show and the audience were waiting and then there was the awful business of saying it couldn’t happen. It was very sad and very surreal, and at that point we didn’t realise the severity of the situation.

“We thought it might be a couple of weeks, and we went out into the streets saying to the audience that we would be back as soon as possible. And then it just spiralled on and on. It was really, really sad but it has been really wonderful to get the reaction from audiences that we have now been getting on tour.

“All of us to a certain extent have got a variety of different jobs. We have portfolio careers. I’m partly a music and drama teacher, but I was called in to teach children from vulnerable families and also children of key workers. I got repurposed! I was really grateful for some routine. It was not full time, but it was a few days a week and just to get out of the house and have a reason to get up in the morning was great. Everybody was trying their best to do their best for the children and to make it fun for them at a difficult time.”

As for the stage career: “I think we went through all the emotions.

“I certainly thought at one point that that was it, that when theatre did reappear it would be just the big companies, the well-oiled groups that had lots of money behind them but actually with the smaller-scale theatre companies and the improv groups we have been much more able to adapt.

“I am with another improv group as well as this and we have been able to jump into dark spots in theatres whenever we could.

“We don’t have much set. We don’t have the same rehearsal requirements. We have just been able to nip in there.”

As for Austentatious, they got back together in August about a week before they first started gigging.: “We did a couple of rehearsals just to remember what we do, just to practise the skills that we need in telling a story together. There are lots of techniques like really listening to each other’s suggestions and building on them. It was just about getting back together.”

The shows themselves start with a “scholar” who is to deliver a short, improvised lecture on Jane Austen: “And as part of that he asks the audience for titles of Jane Austen novels that she never actually wrote, and we choose one of those to become the basis for the show that evening. It is whatever the title inspires for us as a story that night.

“Sometimes people believe that it is not actually fully improvised, that there is a basic structure that we follow and certain patterns but if you saw us more than once you’d realise that it is completely improvised.”

“There are certain characters that do make appearances such as the overbearing mother in the style of Mrs Bennett, the young heroine looking for love like Elizabeth and the caddish men and also aunts and uncles from out of town but apart from that everything is very different. We have a rotating cast of people anyway which makes it different and also the title just pushes you in different ways. And it is lovely to be back!”