Menier Chocolate Factory, London – until 17 November 2019
Some evenings turn out to be such a pick-me-up – exactly what Laura Wade’s delicious, clever and delectable confection, based or ‘adapted’ from Jane Austen’s unfinished novel, Sanditon, proves to be.
According to the programme note, her ‘unfinished’ manuscript has triggered an industry of speculation about how it might have ended, Andrew Davies’ sexed up ITV version being only the latest.
But only Wade (author of the award winning Posh, Home, I’m Darling and a Tipping the Velvet stage version for Lyric Hammersmith last year) has been daring enough to transfer it to the stage. And what’s more, to not only have fun with it but to have serious fun. Now that takes craft of a very special kind.
And she does it with such brio. For her Watsons turns out to be not only the expected romp with impoverished daughters seeking marriage, red-coated military and clergy hovering in the background amidst squawking relatives and an awkward but besotted Lord of the Manor ready to make proposals. This one is also stuffed with timely commentaries on the painful art of being an author and what constitutes the makings of a good and workable society.
I never thought to hear the theories of Rousseau and Locke bandied around with such comic timing or for them to sound so applicable to our own present political morass. Nor for characters’ anarchic potential to be delivered with such an explosion of merriment and carefree abandon.
Samuel West and his Chichester coterie, too, deliver the kind of production that one sees all too rarely these days, a genuine ensemble of talents each contributing in design, lighting, music (Isobel Waller-Bridge having a particularly busy time of it at present, having also provided a stunning score for Yaël Farber’s Blood Wedding this week at the Young Vic) and a hand-picked cast each one of whom stamps their own personality on the smallest of parts.
All seems typical Jane Austen for the first 30 minutes or so until our heroine, the sprightly and impoverished Emma Watson (a perky Grace Molony) is on the point of accepting a proposal of marriage from Joe Bannister’s wonderfully incoherently hesitant Lord Osborne. Cue flash of lightning and suddenly a maid turns into modern-day `Laura’ – none other than author Laura of this play.
Wade takes some risk inserting herself so fully, as she does here, with her modern foibles and insecurities all out on show and allowing herself to be royally chastised and challenged by her characters, one after the other.
There is a wonderful moment after the interval when the whole ensemble line-up to confront her in a whitened out never-never land – a place where both author and characters are going to have to negotiate the future direction of the the play/book’s narrative.
Wade injects some delicious existential `double-vision’ confusions of time (then and now) and realities – `how’, asks Emma, `can I only be a pretend “character” when I feel I’m a real person?’.
And how much scope is `author’ Laura, going to give her characters to follow their own inclinations? Must they always be imprisoned by the author’s wishes?
Wonderful literary and philosophical tugs-of-war, Laura wittily goes on to reference Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, before finally decides she’s had enough and takes to her bed.
A riot of sexual freedoms ensues. In the melee, Lady Osborne (Jane Booker in perfect Dowager mode) declares love to Sally Bankes’ venerable Maid; Emma disappears under a bed with one of the army officers whilst her sister, Margaret, the titian haired Rhianna McGreevy, delivers a voluptuous account of the orgasmic joys of marital bliss having suddenly married Tim Delap’s upright clergyman, Mr Howard.
But how to end an `unfinished’ work? True to its nature, Laura decides to write herself out of this particular story though not without passing on the writing baton to Emma. So Emma becomes `author’ who in the future may indeed write about another character becoming an author…an ever circling wheel of possibilities and future narratives.
What a wonderful charade, what a wonderful conceit!
Like characters in a book who never die, as `author’ Laura says, this too deserves to last forever. Eat your heart out, Andrew Davies.
Brave and bold and a triumph! Highly recommended.
A new play by Laura Wade
Adapted from the unfinished novel by Jane Austen
Emma Watson: Grace Molony
Elizabeth Watson: Paksie Vernon
Margaret Watson: Rhianna McGreevy
Robert Watson: Sam Alexander
Mrs Robert: Sophie Duval
Mr Watson: John Wilson Goddard
Nanny: Sally Bankes
Tom Musgrave: Laurence Ubong Williams
Lord Osborne: Joe Bannister
Lady Osborne: Jane Booker
Miss Osborne: Cat White
Mr Howard: Tim Delap
Charles Howard: Isaac Forward, Sonny Fowler, Teddy Probets
Mrs Edwards: Elaine Claxton
Bertie, officer of the militia: Elander Moore
Laura, a writer: Louise Ford
Mr Edwards: Antony Hampton
Officers of the militia: Nicholas Southcott, Jacob Kat
Director: Samuel West
Designer: Ben Stones
Lighting Designer: Richard Howell
Sound Designer: Gregory Clarke
Music: Isobel Waller-Bridge
Movement Director: Mike Ashcroft
Wigs & Make-Up Designer: Cynthia De La Rosa
Original Casting: Charlotte Sutton CDG
Children’s Casting Director: Jo Hawes CDG
Assistant Director: Ali Pidsley
Associate Sound Designer: Jonathan Everett
Production based on the Chichester Festival Theatre production.
World premiere of The Watsons at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester, Nov 3, 2018
This production performed by permission with Knight Hall Agency Ltd.
Supported by Sonia Friedman Productions and Playing Field (Theatre)
London premiere of this production of The Watsons at Menier Chocolate Factory, Sept 20, 2019. Runs to Nov 16, 2019.
Review published on this site, Oct 1, 2019