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.

Austentatious at Leicester Square Theatre review ****

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Austentatious

Leicester Square Theatre, 26th February 2017

So I am guessing that a good number of people have already stumbled across the comedy joy that this improvisatory troupe bring. So I’ll get to the point. The premise is simple. Take some suggestions from the audience for daft, “unpublished” Jane Austen novel titles and then improvise plot and character over the thick end of an hour around that. I suspect there may be a little “deus ex machina” in the choice of title that is actually picked out of the hat but even so, the revolving cast of actors are so honed at this that there are guaranteed chuckles, titters and, for me, quite a few belly laughs.

Now obviously if you see this you probably will have some regard for the work of Austen. And it helps that the great lady herself was a master at the art of gentle situation comedy. So taking her stock situations and characters and poking fun at them was, in hindsight, always going to be a winner. But this lot are doing it in real time, whilst having to gauge the reactions of each other and audience, resolve the narrative twist and turns, and make it properly funny. I massively take my hat off to anyone brave enough to do improv and it is often a device that disappoints or annoys. But not here. They are outstanding, including the cellist on the night we went, and very clever, as they have to be to incorporate the multiplicity of references and the barrage of sight gags. And I assume the more they practice they better they have become.

So if you think this sounds like your cup of tea then do not hesitate. They regular pitch up here, elsewhere in London, in Edinburgh during the festival and on tour, so it should be easy enough to track them down.

There is very little on which the tourist’s family can agree on in terms of entertainment. The complex negotiations required even to watch a DVD or Netflix film would test the Foreign Office. We are constantly praying for a new comedy series to appear on the box as this is the one likely constant in a sea of argument and resentment. MS, and even more so MSC, are careful to time their visits to avoid any potential TV watching longueurs. We can, just occasionally, look forward to the next Bond movie or backwards, misty-eyed, to anything by Mischief Theatre, but otherwise it every man or woman for him/herself, tapping away or staring aimlessly at their own devices.

For one precious hour though Austentatious brought us together. It might work for you too. “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours and laugh at them in our turn” as Ms A apparently wrote in P and P.