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.

Blood Wedding at the Young Vic review ****

Blood Wedding

Young Vic, 11th October 2019

I got a bit nervous going into this. For those who don’t know, South African director Yael Farber has a certain style, an aesthetic, and approach to interpretation of classic plays, which isn’t too everyone’s taste. For me it works. Mies Julie, Knives in Hens, Les Blancs, even the much derided Salome at the NT, all drew me in. Very satisfying. We have her take on Hamlet also at the Young Vic to look forward to next year and newbie, the Boulevard Theatre, has lined her up to direct her compatriot, Athol Fugard’s, Hello and Goodbye.

For Blood Wedding though I had roped in the SO, a more forbidding critic, who is not, as most chums rightly are, as tolerant as the Tourist of, shall we say directorial longueurs. And this was near 2 hours straight through. On the benches of the Young Vic main space. And with her back playing up.

As it turned out I had nothing to fear. Lorca’s play, (his day job was poet after all), has a mythic and elegiac quality perfectly suited to Ms Farber’s ethereal approach, though this tale of forbidden love and revenge is not without drama and lends itself to a clear feminist interpretation. All this and more was on show at the Young Vic. A barely there, in the round, set design from Susan Hilferty, with occasional visual declamation via doors on one side, some artful cascades and a rope and harness which permitted muscular bad boy Leonardo (Gavin Drea) and absconding (nameless) Bride (Aoife Duffin) the striking means to pretend gallop. The intervention of the symbolic Moon (Thalissa Teixera), who can now add superb flamenco singing to her acting flair, and woodcutters (Roger Jean Nsengiyumva and Faaiz Mbelizi) made perfect, just about, sense. The bold lighting of Natasha Chivers, the score of Isobel Waller-Bridge, the spectral hum of Emma Laxton’s sound design, the balletic movement of Imogen Knight, witness the closing fight (overseen by Kate Waters) and subsequent requiem.

Most of all though Marina Carr’s beautiful translation. By shifting the setting of Lorca’s revenge tragedy to rural Ireland, though never quite leaving 1930’s Andalusia behind, Ms Faber allowed Ms Carr the opportunity to conjure an English language translation which was sympathetic to the poetry, metaphor and idiom of the Spanish original. A colonised Irish interior, suppressed by Church and State, bears obvious similarities to the paralysed, benighted Spain that Lorca delineated, critiqued and celebrated in his rural trilogy (Yerma and The House of Bernarda Alba as well as BW). The hybrid setting also allowed the natural casting of the magnificent Olwen Fouere as the grizzled, austere Mother and the equally magnificent Brid Brennan as the Weaver. If I tell you that Annie Firbank as the Housekeeper and Steffan Rhodri as the outraged Father also graced the stage, along with relative newcomers Scarlett Brookes, (watch her closely in future) as Leonardo’s spurned wife and David Walmsley as the equally wronged Groom, then you can see that this was a grade A cast top to toe.

Lorca’s story is straightforward. Mother reminds son (the Groom) that his Dad and Bro were killed by the men of the Felix family next door. A dispute over land. Leonardo Felix and the Bride are still in love. Mrs Leonardo knows. The Mother finds out as well but decides to visit the Bride and her Dad. The wedding goes ahead by Leonardo turns up and steals the Bride. Outrage. Vengeance. Fight. Deaths. Sacrifice. It is very heady stuff but its chimerical qualities mean it is a long way from melodrama or even Greek tragedy. Closer to fable.

Anyway Yael Farber and Marina Carr have done a little nip and tuck with the plot but all the primitive elements are still there. That this is a traditional, brutally patriarchal society is never in doubt, as much but what the older women say, as the men, and yet there is still a sense of agency in the striking performances of Aoife Duffin and Scarlett Brooks. There is intentional comedy in the vernacular passages and there is no unintentional comedy in the brutal and fantastical scenes, (though once or twice it skirts close near the end – it is the women who mop up the blood). The cumulative effect is undeniably powerful even when the pace edges towards the, shall we say, Largo. In fact there is something of the minor key symphonic in Yael Farber’s reading.

I am not sure I would recommend this to fans of the Lion King or indeed anyway unfamiliar with this deliberately stylised auteur approach to theatre. On reflection I shouldn’t really have worried about the SO’s reaction. She reads books. Proper books. Lots of them. We are drowning in theme. Imagination, to augment the visual abstraction, is therefore no limitation for her.

The Son at the Kiln Theatre review ****

The Son

Kiln Theatre, 20th March 2019

After this, The Father, the Mother and The Height of the Storm, there is still a part of me that gets antsy at the work of Gallic wunderkind, Florian Zeller, and his English translator Christopher Hampton. There is something just too clever, too slick, too contrived about his plays. Just enough experimentation to justify the theatrical form, just enough plot jumps to keep those more accustomed to naturalistic TV drama on their toes. They are technically brilliant but for me he is just a teensy teensy bit guilt of manipulating audience emotions.

Having said that, in the superb space that is the Kiln, the right ratio of stage to audience, this is an utterly enthralling, unbroken 100 minutes of theatre. The Tourist may cavil at the concept behind these plays but, once again, the reality is undeniably affecting. We are back in a minimalist, pastel painted French apartment, grand piano at the rear, on the UK stage where the other two plays in the trilogy started, this time designed by Lizzie Clachlan. This is the home of lawyer Pierre (John Light), his new partner Sofia (Amaka Okafor) and their new baby. And troubled son Nicolas (Laurie Kynaston) after he goes to live with Dad following a spell with Mum, Anne, (Amanda Abbington) after their divorce. We know adolescent Nicolas is troubled because he has skipped his new school for 3 months, writes on the wall, self-harms, bites his nails and shrugs his shoulders under Dad’s interrogation. But just to be sure we know he is disintegrating mentally he upends the flat and a whole bunch of stuff spills out a plastic bag attached to the ceiling to litter the parquet floor of the apartment. Subtle metaphor huh?

Pierre, Anne and Sofia try to help Nicolas, pleading, cajoling, arguing, listening, but eventually have to seek help in the form of a psychiatrist Doctor (Martin Turner) assisted by Nurse (Oseloka Obi, who I say deliver a fine Gaveston in Lazarus Theatre’s Edward II, though he doesn’t say much here). This doesn’t help. The ending is, in many ways, as unsurprising in its attempt to surprise as the development. Yet the dialogue, the dilemmas with which the characters are presented, the ratcheting up of Nicolas’s condition and the inability of his parents to prevent his decline is what makes the play take hold and not let go. Florian Zeller doesn’t feel the need to offer a clear explanation of why Nicolas is in such pain, surely more than the break-up of his parents: he simply analyses the consequences. I don’t know how realistic these behaviours or events might actually be, it feels a little too pat, but there is no doubting the way it connected to the audience, whether they were grandparent, parent, twenty-something or teen.

Michael Longhurst’s direction is perfectly paced, with scenes melting into each other, supported by Isobel Waller-Bridge’s delicate under-scoring and Lee Curran’s considered lighting. This allows John Light to show Pierre’s journey from brisk, business like problem solving to utter helplessness at his son’s condition, Amanda Abbington, with minimal dialogue, to communicate a mother’s incomprehension and guilt at not being able to rescue her son, and Amaka Okafor to reveal Sofia’s ambivalence, wanting to be the sympathetic outsider but caring more about her own happiness with Pierre and the needs of her new child. Martin Turner is perfectly cast as the stern, cruel to be kind, professional. However the evening, (well in this case afternoon), really belongs to Laurie Kynaston. Nicolas, on the page, only just stays the right side of over-written. It would be pretty easy, given the torment that Mr Kynaston has to project, to go too far. He does not. Bored, petulant, despairing, endearing, frightened, threatening, begging, desolate and more. We’ll being seeing a lot more of young Laurie.

So another hit to follow the slippery study of dementia in The Father, the pain of bereavement in old age in The Height of the Storm, and the dissolution of The Mother whose children have left the nest. In the right hands, Mr Zeller’s mix of contextless, multiple perspective, “unravelling of the mind” pyschodrama, with Christopher Hampton’s lucid translation, can be utterly absorbing even if the artificiality grates. In the wrong hands, thankfully not here and not in the other plays given the acting prowess of the likes of Kenneth Cranham, Gina McKee, Jonathan Price and Eileen Atkins, I can see it going very wrong. As, judging by the reviews in has in the transfer of The Mother to the Broadway stage with the doyenne of hauteur Isabell Huppert.