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.

Rules For Living review at the Rose Theatre Kingston ***

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Rules For Living

Rose Theatre Kingston, 13th November 2017

The Tourist loves the Rose Theatre. Admittedly it helps that it is just a hop, skip and a jump, (well brisk walk), away from him. It does serve up some interesting theatre though, in amongst the music and comedy, and it does a grand job for the local community, notably for the young people. Understandably most of the theatre it produces is shared with other venerable regional houses but this makes eminent economic sense. And by and large, when it has nabbed something for itself, the decision has paid off. All this is achieved without an Artistic Director or commissions. Given the size of the place, 900 seats, comparable with the Lyttleton say, or the newly opened Bridge, this seems to me a laudable strategy.

Over the last couple of years we have had the excellent productions of My Brilliant Friend (My Brilliant Friend at the Rose Theatre Kingston review ****) and The Good Canary, the outstanding Junkyard, (Junkyard at the Rose Theatre review *****), which was a massive positive surprise for me and BD, a pretty good recent revival of The Real Thing (The Real Thing at the Rose Theatre Kingston review ****), the ambitious and largely successful Wars of the Roses, a fine All My Sons and decent productions of Toast, The Herbal Bed, The Absence of War and Maxine Peake’s Beryl, (looks like the marvellous Maxine will end as good a writer as she is actor). Oh and we got the Play That Goes Wrong before the West End.

Coming up we have a new production of Much Ado About Nothing with Mel Giedroyc, (which means BD and LD are already signed up), as Beatrice, (dying to know who will be Benny), and a Don Carlos, (shared with the Nuffield Southampton and the Northcott Exeter so LS will be instructed to attend), in which Tom Burke, (you know him off War and Peace), will partner again with the fancy-dan Israeli director Gadi Roll. A bit of Schiller should wake up the good burghers of Kingston.

Right that’s the puff piece over. What about Rules for Living? This play by Sam Holcroft premiered at the National Theatre in 2015 where it was, by and large, well received. Brothers Matthew (Jolyon Coy, last seen by me in the somewhat different Little Eyolf at the Almeida) and Adam (Ed Hughes) have returned to the family home with, respectively, partner Carrie (Carlyss Peer) and wife Nicole (Laura Rodgers), for Christmas Day. Matriarch Edith (Jane Booker) is marshalling the troops ahead of her husband Francis (Paul Shelley) coming home from hospital, after, it transpires, having had a stroke. Last, and probably least since she is off stage in bed until the end, is Emma, the fragile daughter of Adam and Nicole.

So far, so middle class sitcom. Carrie is a flighty actress, who wants successful lawyer Matthew to pop the question. Adam was a cricketer whose career was ignominiously cut short when he froze on his Test debut. He is now a provincial solicitor. Adam and Nicole’s marriage is on the rocks. Dad Francis was a judge and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Under Edith’s direction the festive activities are run with military precision. 

Now the twist, because, as it stands, this cracker would be more Poundland than Waitrose.  Each of the characters has to follow a rule to govern their behaviour. This flashes up above Lily Arnold’s lovely doll’s house set. The detail of this rule is expanded through the play. So, for example, Matthew has to first sit down, and then eat, when he tells a porkie. I will refrain from trotting out the other rules in case you chance to see this. You get the picture I am sure. Ms Holcroft took learnings from cognitive behavioural therapy as the inspiration for the play and cleverly ensures each of the rules matches the characters faults, frustrations and personalities.

This then is the catalyst for the hilarious goings-on and, initially, at least, there is much humour in this conceit. Having weaved this into the plot though, Ms Holcroft then doesn’t see to entirely know what to do with it, so we veer off into a quasi-farce which ends with a food fight. Amusing yes, and it bears comparison with the master it emulates in Alan Ayckbourn, but it felt to me that the idea was too clever for the execution. The conceit boxed the characters in and didn’t leave enough room for the pathos which was needed to balance the farce.

The cast entered into the spirit of the venture with energetic enthusiasm, even Ed Hughes and Carlyss Peer whose “rule’ was the trickiest to pull off without being annoying. Jane Booker had the pick of some very funny lines and Paul Shelley, with no lines as such and precious little stage time, was a hoot. Laura Rodgers probably dug deepest though her “rule” gave the most opportunity for nuanced development. Director Simon Godwin, who has had some notable successes at the NT, especially his Twelfth Night, chose to anchor proceedings in the family home and play down the “game-show” context of the original production.

All in all then like a game of family charades. A really good idea when it kicks off but wearing after an hour or so. We are going to try doing massive jigsaw maps in silence for Xmas this year. Yo ho ho.

PS. I see that Sam Holcroft is writing a play for the Bridge based on the novel The Black Cloud by astrophysicist Fred Hoyle. Blimey. There will be some big ideas in that for sure.