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‘There are some fabulous laughs’: THE WATSONS – Menier Chocolate Factory ★★★★

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Menier Chocolate Factory, London – until 17 November 2019

The Jane Austen industry never flags, in tribute or in parody. You can barely throw a bonnet without hitting an  Austentatious improv, popcorn movie, stripped- down Northanger Abbey staged on scaffolding, or some updated  BridgetJonesery. Right now we have two writers finishing incomplete fragments, both accepting that it won’t be quite what Jane woulda done, but hey… Thus Andrew Davies sexes up Sanditon for ITV with incest, brothels and Theo James leaping on coaches, and up from Chichester, adapted a bit, here’s Laura Wade taking on the earlier  Watsons.

We begin in Jane’s world and words, as Emma (a charmingly spirited Grace Molony) has been dumped by her rich aunt to live in reduced circumstances with an ailing father and two sisters. All of whom must marry or be destitute (or governesses or teachers, generally in Austen considered almost as bad).

It gets going with deft economy under Samuel West’s direction, as Ben Stones’ panelled set slides and opens to establish a host of locals, militia, toffs and possible husbands. There’s a beautiful dance-with-dialogue including a ten year old in tailcoat, very authentic-Austen. But 30 minutes in, as the original author stops, Emma is about to accept the dull Lord – as indeed she would have without Aunt Jane to stop her. And  it goes all meta and Pirandello:  author (played by Louise Ford) dashes in from 21c literary reality and stops her, because Austen heroines must make love-matches. It baffles Emma, and provokes horror in her sisters who feel that turning down a “not particularly deformed” Lord with a pineapple hothouse is crazy.

From here on it’s a battle of wills between the modern author and the characters, who are appalled at being told they aren’t real and stage a revolution. There are some fabulous laughs: the horror of Jane Booker’s Lady Osborne at the author’s plastic chair and immodest jeans, the glee of the child discovering her iPhone, and his poignant horror of having to be ten forever. Wade is at her best sending herself up, and when the entire cast of characters start whingeing like am-dram actors (“I don’t seem to be in it much” “My character wouldn’t do that” etc) .

It also opens up some lovely ironies about the artificiality of all fictional pattern-making, as author-Laura protests that it was a “Feminist Act” of Austen’s to make her characters marry for love, because in her society marriage was the only route to female independence.  The characters hurl arguments from Hobbes and Rousseau, and express  natural  indignation at having a path laid down at all.

Pleasing  chaos and insubordination keep it moving, and there’s even a brief Napoleonic war, an erotic speech to scare the pants off even Andrew Davies, and a fine moment of glory for Nanny (Sally Bankes) as  the only working-class character.

But O, the temptation of writerly  self-pity and self importance!  One can see why, but the pace slows terribly  as “Laura”loses control and sobs at her lot while the rebel characters gather round, leaderless.  Her exhilarating final moral – that unfinishedness is freedom and  a myriad possibilities – is fine, But I (and the novelist pal at my side) both winced  at her injunction to the little boy “never be ashamed to call yourself an artist”.  No, no,no…just don’t..

But it  was fun.

Box office menierchocolatefactory.com.  To 17 Nov

Rating four

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Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.
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Libby Purves on RssLibby Purves on Twitter
Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.

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