The Watsons at the Menier Chocolate Factory review *****

The Watsons

Menier Chocolate Factory, 16th November 2019

Fannyed about and failed to book this when it came to Chichester. Wasn’t about to make the same mistake again so quick off the mark when the transfer to the MCF was announced and a three line whip to include the SO and, a new fellow traveller, TSLOM, whose literary knowledge might even exceed that of the SO herself.

Anyway, and at the risk of coming all over key board warrior alone in his bedroom, IT IS ABSOLUTELY VITAL THAT YOU DO NOT MISS THIS ON ITS THIRD OUTING. It will show at the Harold Pinter Theatre from 8th May to 26th September, and there are plenty of tickets left, which gives you no excuse even if you wait.

For this is one of the funniest and smartest plays you are likely to see in this or any other year. No great surprise given Laura Wade’s track record (Home, I’m Darling, Tipping the Velvet, Posh, Alice, Breathing Corpses, Colder Than Here) and a sympathetic, I assume, director in the form of partner Samuel West (Prue and Timmy’s boy for you canal lovers).

Easy enough to find out the central premise. The Watsons was a novel from 1803/4 that Jane Austen abandoned, (as she did in 1817 with Sanditon, which, as I am sure you are aware, Andrew Davies and ITV recently “completed”). JA produced about 80 pages, laying out all the characters, and some clues as to where it would end up, though whether as novella or full blown novel isn’t clear. Apparently loads of punters have had a stab at completing it, the Austen industry being a continuing British success story, though I doubt have been as successful in their efforts as Ms Wade.

On to the bijou stage at the MCF, mediated through Ben Stones’s, ingenious white box with props and plinth stage, and Mike Ashcroft’s precise movement direction, we meet all the characters from the original novel at a ball, obviously. Emma Watson (Grace Molony – perfect) is the youngest daughter of a widowed, and poorly, clergyman (John Wilson Goddard). She was brought up by a wealthy aunt, and is thus educated and refined, but after her benefactor remarries, she returns home to Daddy and her daft sister Margaret (Rhianna McGreevy). The sisters are, by dint of economic circumstance, looking to make a “good match”, with more than one eye on the dashing, though plainly caddish, Tom Musgrave (Laurence Ubong Williams). His shortcomings are identified by Emma’s level headed eldest sister Elizabeth (Paksie Vernon). Their neighbours include super toff, Lady Osborne (Jane Booker) and her super awkward son (Joe Bannister), and his sprightly sister (Cat White). At the ball, accompanied by kindly chaperone Mrs Edwards (Elaine Claxton), she is introduced to local vicar Mr Howard (Tim Delap), a potential Mr Right, even if he veers towards the priggish, and his eager young nephew, Charles. Soon after Margaret returns home with grasping brother Robert (Sam Alexander) and his snobbish wife Mary (Sophie Duval). Nanny (Sally Bankes), looks on bemused.

So far, so, er, Jame Austen. And then the maid arrives, who is, to say the least a bit lippy and forward. Yes it is, and I am giving nothing away here, our very own playwright Laura (played by Louise Ford -also perfect), hot from “reality” to rescue Emma from making a crappy marriage choice from the three candidates, and boost female agency. When Emma, who isn’t, it must be said, altogether happy with the intervention, and the rest of the cast, have adjusted to this surprising turn of events the fun really begins. Meta doesn’t begin to describe as the cast take umbrage with being “characters” in a “play” and rebel against Laura’s authorship of their “lives”. This permits the dissection of class and gender, as in previous plays by Ms Wade, but against the backdrop of who owns a story, genius in the context that this was both unfinished and that so many of us have an obsessive interest in its author and her books, and the social mores it represents, well beyond what is there on the page, (JA I mean not LW, though, of course, as the conceit unfolds, we are very much invested in LW, the character of LW the playwright).

There are precedents for the play, notably Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, which LW self-deprecatingly admits, but this is much more immediate in its impact. LW doesn’t abandon the comedy that flows from parody, though there are no cheap laughs here, nor does she abandon the search for logic in the face of what she is articulating. Even if that logic is as daft as the very idea of the willing suspension of disbelief in the first place. This is not clever-clever, up its own arse theory theatre, though. It will make you think about its themes but never at the expense of making you chuckle.

Sam West’s direction, and Ben Stokes’s costumes, are geared to this purpose, the conventions of period drama never entirely subverted even when the cast threatens anarchy to plot, and there is a knowing warmth throughout. This may be satire, but everyone involved plainly loves, and fetishises Austen, as much, if not more than the audience. When the production, including Richard Howell’s lighting, Gregory Clarke’s sound and Isobel Waller-Bridge’s music, opens up on the Harold Pinter stage expect the brilliance of Laura Wade’s creation to be even more apparent.

Repeat. Do not miss this.

When the Crows Visit at the Kiln Theatre review ****

When the Crows Visit

Kiln Theatre, 6th November 2019

An adaptation of Ibsen’s Ghosts, relocated to modern day India. Seems like a good idea no? It was. In fact better than I had expected even with its visible flaws.. Anupama Chandrasekhar has written a play that takes the Norwegian master more as inspiration than instruction and created her own, hard-hitting, response to male violence, female exoneration and the visitation of the sins of the father on the son. And with a crack cast and Indhu Rubasingham directing it is powerfully realised.

Bally Gill, who shone as Romeo in the RSC production last year, plays Akshay, the spoilt entitled son of Hema, (the marvellous Ayesha Dharker who you will recognise from big and small screen), who, along with grandma Jaya (Bollywood veteran Soni Razdan in full-on say what you think mode), fawns over him. We first meet him at the games company he works for in Mumbai, getting a dressing down for the failure of his latest idea from David (Paul G Raymond), the school friend and now successful entrepreneur, who was cajoled into giving Akshay a job because of family connections. Uma, (Miriam Haque who also plays Hema’s progressive sister), gets the nod from David to work on a new game, denting Akshay’s pride. He is still sulking when the three go to a bar for after work drinks. Later he vents his fury in an horrific act of violence with a clear real life antecedent.

He runs back to Mummy and we watch as the truth comes out. But Akshay’s guilt is not punished. Instead the corrupt police inspector, (a somewhat mannered Asif Khan, who plays neighbour Gopi in a similar way), and Hema concoct a plan to shift the blame and Akshay’s toxic aggression turns against Ragini (Aryana Ramkhalawon), the carer for the irascible Jaya. Whilst the development of the story is sickeningly predictable, Ms Chandrasekhar, has her writing hand firmly on the disclosure tiller, ratcheting up the tension, through to the explosive ending. Family history, as you might surmise from the source, plays a big part in this disclosure. There is no hope here; just brutal truth.

The dialogue is leavened with Hindu religious monologues from Jaya and the pesky crows, (realised by the puppetry of Matt Hutchison), which she feeds provide a symbolic edge well matched to Richard Kent’s claustrophobic, shadowy Chennai mansion house set, accented by Oliver Fenwick’s lighting and the Ringham brothers sound.

It isn’t subtle, teetering close to melodrama at times, and the original victim of Akshay’s horrific crime has no voice. There are, early on, humorous lines built on stereotype. Many reviewers recoiled from both play and production seeing sensationalism. But I was not clear if they were saying this subject shouldn’t be dramatised, or shouldn’t be dramatised this way. Personally I trust writer and director here and if the narrative and characters didn’t fit received wisdom then, for me, so much the better in terms of getting the message across. This is not a subject or setting that regularly finds its way on to mainstream London stages. There is nothing nuanced about the grotesque, misogynist violence which disfigures all societies, not just India, and reminding audiences outside the normal echo chambers of understanding seems to me a laudable aim. The casual and callous way with which female victims of male violence are portrayed every day of the week on the telly, or elsewhere in popular and high culture seems to me to be a far more pertinent target than this uncomfortable play.

Posh at the Rose Kingston review ****

Posh

Rose Theatre Kingston, 15th October 2019

Another play on the wish list. Not that Laura Wade’s Posh hasn’t had regular outing since it first appeared at the Royal Court in 2010. And, memorably it was made into a film The Riot Club, in 2014 directed by Danish director Lone Scherfig to Ms Wade’s screenplay . A thinly veiled satire on the covert Bullingdon Club, where Oxford University’s finest men get shitfaced and cause havoc all in the name of …. well wankerdom and entitlement I suppose. Open only to super toffs from the “top” public schools. Expensive threads, fancy dining and immediate payment for damage done in whatever venue is daft enough to let them in, Call me Dave and BoJo the Clown were members. Enough said. Apparently as the world moves on, Oxbridge democratises its intake and thanks in part to the play, there are very few dickheads who are up for this now. It may die soon. Hurrah.

Of course BoJo, like so much in his dodgy past, has renounced the Club and is no doubt cracking on with penning vague policy about banging up the real crims who get lashed up and smash things up on a Saturday night.

Anyway Ms Wade’s play is far more than just an excuse for us snarky grammar school types to vent our indignation at those whose confidence far exceeds their ability. As with Home, I’m Darling and The Watsons, Ms Wade dissects misogyny, here it its most repellent incarnation, as well as class. Her early plays show that she can turn her writing hand to just about anything ranging across subjects, concepts and form, but it is the execution that she stands out. Writing plays that are this dramatically sharp, theatrically entertaining and above all, this funny, is a rare gift.

Now the Rose Kingston unsurprisingly made much of the appearance of one Tyger Drew-Honey, the undeniably good looking young man who first appeared on our screens in the comedy Outnumbered, this being his stage debut. He plays Alexander Ryle the villain of the piece, though he has stiff competition, but this is most definitely an ensemble play. I can report that young Tyger did himself proud, especially in the second half when his twisted, fascistic take on class envy fired up his chums, and in the epilogue when Jeremy (Simon Rhodes), the Tory MP uncle of George Balfour (Joseph Tyler Todd) offers him a job despite, or maybe because as the Club, past and present, closed ranks, he was held responsible for the evening’s outrages. Mr Rhodes does a nice line in Establishment privilege and Mr Todd, an ex Cambridge graduate setting out on his acting career was superb as the butt of all jokes, George.

He wasn’t the only recent Cambridge graduate on show. Adam Mirsky who played airhead Guy Bellingfield, Chris Born who was James Leighton-Masters, the increasingly reluctant President, Isobel Laidler who played the molested daughter of the pub’s proprietor, Rachel, are all alumni though I am guessing are a long way from the characters they are playing. If it helps, knowing a few young’uns of recent vintage from that very place, I am pretty sure that the Posh-types are now very thin on the ground there though it is a shame a previous generation has its incompetent hands now on the levers of power. George Prentice who played aristo Miles Richards (Bristol), Matthew Entwhistle who played Toby Richards and Ollie Appleby who played the gay Hugo Fraser-Tyrwhitt (Exeter) are all current undergraduates at unis which will also have, potentially, offered some insight into their characterisations. The cast was completed by Jack Whittle as Harry Villiers, Jamie Littlewood as nouveau riche Greek scion Dmitri Mitropolous, Taylor Mee as Ed Montgomery, Ellie Nunn as Charlie, the sex worker who shows up the boys for what they are, and Peter McNeil O’Connor as the pub owner Chris whose trust is betrayed.

No point highlighting any particular performance. The play is written to give everyone an opportunity to alternately elicit the audience’s amusement, fury and sympathy. Will Coombs’ set, the private dining room of the pub, didn’t quite have the measure of the expansive Rose stage but at least this gave room for the histrionics of the Club to play out. Lucy Hughes’s direction blocked well in this regard and she had an eye and eye for the rhythm and pacing of the play. Whilst Ms Hughes has spent many years teaching this is also her professional debut. I’d be surprised if she doesn’t get another gig sharpish.

Posh is, intentionally, a brutal play and Ms Hughes didn’t pull any punches. Maybe a little forced at the beginning but once the ten members of the club are assembled the production caught fire. The misplaced pride in the Club’s history, the portraits of long dead members looking down on them, the pathetic ritualistic traditions, the empty bragging and swaggering, the bullying and exploiting of weakness, the sexual predation, the condescension and contempt All faithfully rendered. The original production featured such luminaries as Leo Bill, David Dawson, Joshua McGuire, Richard Goulding, Harry Hadden-Paton, Henry Lloyd-Hughes, Tom Mison, Kit Harington and James Norton. Didn’t harm their careers. Here’s hoping some of the raw talent on show here, which gives the production such energy, gets a similar break.

Of course there is the risk of an ambiguity at the heart of Posh. Are we laughing at, or with, the Club? I think Ms Wade’s intention is clear however and Lucy Hughes, in her direct reading, reflected this. Hopefully if I ever see it again it will be a period piece, such behaviour consigned to the dustbin of history. Somehow I have my doubts.