tue 15/10/2019

The Watsons, Menier Chocolate Factory review - Laura Wade's inventive new play | reviews, news & interviews

The Watsons, Menier Chocolate Factory review - Laura Wade's inventive new play

The Watsons, Menier Chocolate Factory review - Laura Wade's inventive new play

Jane Austen redux fizzes with ideas

Grace Molony (left) as Emma Watson and Louise Ford as LauraImages - Manuel Harlan

What a joy Laura Wade's latest play is. Transferring from its successful run at the Minerva Theatre at Chichester last year, The Watsons is developed from Jane Austen's unfinished novel (started in 1804 and abandoned the following year). But rather than give us a period homage or a modern pastiche, Wade serves up a delightful concoction that has elements of both, but also much, much more.

She sets the scene by dramatising the surviving pages of Austen's story. Emma Watson (Grace Molony) returns home to Surrey after being raised by a moneyed aunt in Shropshire for 14 years. Her father is dying and she and her two older sisters live in genteel poverty. Emma, 19, is expected, in time-honoured Austen fashion, to find herself a husband.

There are various potential suitors, and we meet them all at, where else, a ball (with dances performed to Isobel Waller-Bridge's jaunty score): the tongue-tied posho Lord Osborne, the flirty cad Tom Musgrave (Laurence Ubong Williams) and Mr Howard (Tim Delap), a dull but kind clergyman. Will she marry for love, or for money?The company of The WatsonsHaving established the scene, Wade then lets her imagination run free. She introduces a modern-day character called Laura (Louise Ford), the writer of the play who, dressed as a maid, interrupts the action to question Emma about her choices, and whether she has agency in them. Emma is, of course, puzzled by this stranger from both the future and reality. Pretty soon, all the other characters question their existence, and ultimately, Laura's authority. Anarchy ensues as writer and characters all lose the plot.

It gets as meta as you like, and its debt to Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author is acknowledged (with shades of The Truman Show, too). Wade uses the ensuing anarchy on stage to delve into moral, political and philosophical themes as the actors debate Enlightenment thinking, the creative process and feminism.

There are lots of big ideas being floated here, but Wade manages to convey them with bright Austenesque dialogue mixed with some zinging wit. Hobbes and Rousseau are thrown into the mix, but so too are affectionate barbs about precious theatre types and creative egos as the characters, now they know they are not real and can dispense with the writer, jostle for more lines or better endings.

Ben Stones's striking set (pictured above) has echoes of a doll's house and ingeniously transforms from Regency detail to modern chic post-interval. The acting is tremendous: Ford as Laura neatly parlays a writer's angst and control freakery, while Molony brings to life Austen's lively and enquiring heroine. The ensemble cast give great support, with standout performances by Paksie Vernon as Emma's put-upon older sister Elizabeth, Joe Bannister as the inept suitor Lord Osborne, and Jane Booker as his mother Lady Osborne, whose storyline takes a most unexpected turn.

The pace occasionally dips, and there's the odd misfire in this explosion of ideas. But The Watsons is playful, clever and inventive, and Samuel West's assured direction adds to the fun, with barely a bonnet in sight.

Hobbes and Rousseau are thrown into the mix, but so too are affectionate barbs about creative egos

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

Share this article

Comments

It’s not a review. It’s a retelling of the play with all the plot surprises. You might want to take it down, write a proper review and therefore not spoil it for people. Just a thought.

Add comment

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £3.95 per month or £30 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take an annual subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters

Advertising feature

★★★★★

A compulsive, involving, emotionally stirring evening – theatre’s answer to a page-turner.
The Observer, Kate Kellaway

 

Direct from a sold-out season at Kiln Theatre the five star, hit play, The Son, is now playing at the Duke of York’s Theatre for a strictly limited season.

 

★★★★★

This final part of Florian Zeller’s trilogy is the most powerful of all.
The Times, Ann Treneman

 

Written by the internationally acclaimed Florian Zeller (The Father, The Mother), lauded by The Guardian as ‘the most exciting playwright of our time’, The Son is directed by the award-winning Michael Longhurst.

 

Book by 30 September and get tickets from £15*
with no booking fee.