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.

Hedda Tesman at the Minerva Theatre Chichester review ***

Hedda Tesman

Minerva Theatre Chichester, 26th September 2019

This counts as a disappointment. Not because of the source material. Hedda Gabler for goodness sake. Nor the cast though I will come back to this. There were plenty of actors on show, Haydn Gwynne, Anthony Calf, Jonathan Hyde, Natalie Simpson and Irfan Shamji, who have stood out and given much pleasure in previous performances. Anna Fleischle’s design was as accomplished as her previous work, realistic and spacious. And I think Holly Race Roughan’s direction, (this is the first time I have seen the work of this Headlong associate), was as faithful to the adapted text and action as possible. It was never dull, full of thoughtful detail and as robust a plot as the day Ibsen dreamt it up in 1891.

No I mean it was a disappointment as I was hoping for so much more. The idea of taking one of, maybe the, greatest female roles in theatre and reworking it, to move the story forward not just to the modern day, but also to age Hedda, George and Brack by three decades, was intriguing. And Cordelia Lynn, whose adaptation of Three Sisters for the Almeida, was so successful, (even if Rebecca Frecknall’s direction over-egged the indeterminate), seemed like just the woman for the job. And text wise she was. It’s just that the premise didn’t deliver on its promise.

We start with level-headed cleaner Bertha (Rebecca Oldfield) sorting out the slightly fusty country house that George and Hedda have returned to from the US. When Anthony Calf’s George breezes in he is recognisably an older, and even more painfully underachieving, version of his younger self who hasn’t yet made it to professor but is still buoyed up by innate enthusiasm. Hedda herself, shuffling in in dressing gown and slippers, is now brimful with regret and reflects this in every, often cruel and acerbic, word. She is a Tesman now through and through, middle-aged and largely “invisible”, the Gabler of her youth a distant memory. Thea Tesman (Natalie Simpson) is now the daughter that Hedda was carrying in the original play and not the rival for Eilert, now Elijah’s, (Irfan Shamji) affection. To say mother and daughter, who is the same age as Hedda in the original, weren’t close would be something of an understatement. Thea “trapped” Hedda in the marriage, (postpartum depression is hinted at), motherhood robbed her of her own academic career and duty, in the form of Daddy Gabler, the general whose giant portrait is one of the first things to find a place in the new home, has kept her there. Threatening, amongst other things, to burn your child’s hair, as we discover, was probably never going to engender much in the way of affection.

George is working on improving his big idea but it is plain his intellect still lags behind Elijah. Thea, who has left her husband, is in love with that intellect and thinks she can “rescue” Elijah from his depression and excessive drinking, as she works with him on the sequel to his best-seller. The affair with a younger Hedda still haunts him. Brack (Jonathan Hyde) is still a shit-stirring perv and Aunt Julie (Jacqueline Clarke). Boys’ drunken night out, the temptation of Thea and Elijah’s manuscript, (no USB sticks here), the pair of pistols, Elijah’s messy death, Brack’s blackmail and …. well you know the end, are are still intact. But …. Ibsen’s puissant plot only works if you are invested in the set-up.

And here, I am afraid, I was not. Not because I couldn’t believe that Hedda would have stuck around, though I had my doubts, but because, having done so, she would then have taken this way out. Some Ibsen works because the characters seek to escape the past. Others, like Hedda Gabler, because they fear their future. To use old Henrik’s genius as a point of departure often pay dividends but to mix up chronology and therefore motivation, as here, did not. Haydn Gwynne did her admirable best to solve this conundrum but never quite cracked it, too much self-loathing, and, though it pains me to say it, having seen his air of gentle vulnerability fit the bill perfectly in Ms Lynne’s razor-sharp satire One for Sorrow at the Royal Court and Joe White’s outstanding debut play Mayfly at the Orange Tree, Irfan Shamji seemed completely miscast as Elijah.

In some ways given the space, the cast, the top notch creatives (Ruth Chan’s music, complete with off stage tinkling hinting at Hedda’s past pianistic akills,George Dennis’s sound, Zoe Spurr’s lighting) I sort of wished Cordelia Lynn had abandoned the Ibsen plot and explored some of the more tantalising relationships that she opened up. The scenes between this Hedda and the very fine Natalie Simpson as Thea for example showed this potential. Envy of Thea in the original, and the denigration this fosters, partly defines and explains Hedda, (along with the conflicted Daddy worship). And, from this, maybe draw out more explicitly the contrasts between the economic, class and emotional condition of the, now four, women in the play, and how societal change has impacted recent generations.

So all in all not quite up to Headlong’s best who, when they get it right (All My Sons, Mother Courage, This House, People, Places & Things, Junkyard, American Psycho, 1984, Chimerica, The Effect, Medea, Enron), are just about the finest purveyors of theatre in this country. Still a good idea with plenty to admire but one that, like its lead, seemed to lose the courage of its convictions the longer it went on.

Cock at the Minerva Theatre review ****

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Cock

Minerva Theatre, Chichester, 10th October 2018

Another addition to my collection of Mike Bartlett plays. I have professed my admiration for his work on numerous occasions on these pages. You see he just writes gripping drama. Hyper-real, sometimes going a bit over the top, but that is what you pay your money to see. Or at least I think you should. He can range widely across subjects, big and small. And he experiments with form. All in all probably the best of the current generation of British dramatists, of which there is currently a very fine crop. Just need a revival of 13 which I missed on its first outing.

Cock is a comedy which focusses on the machinations of the somewhat weak-willed John (Luke Thallon) as he attempts to choose between his two lovers M (Matthew Needham) and W (Isabella Laughland). It is a sort of companion piece to Bull, written a few years later, about workplace bullying. Both examine the “games that people play” and were kind of inspired by bull-fighting (and cock-fighting) which MB discovered were still very much alive when he visited Mexico City. There are no scene headings or stage directions or props in Cock, only lines between each of the “bouts” between characters (here marked with an electronic “bell”). MB stipulates that there should be “no mime”. He evens leaves out full stops and commas to express natural speech rhythms and inserts blanks to create equivalent pauses. So all your are left with is 2, then 3, then 4 actors circling each other and tumbling out the lines. Just the verbal sparring if you will. Of which there is plenty. It sounds tricksy but it is anything but as MB cannot help putting the right words, at the right time, into his characters. Emotions, as in his other works, are heightened by the formal structure. Everything is clarified.

It transpires that John was pretty young when he moved in with M. M is a bit of an emotional bully but when John wants out after seven years it’s pretty clear M is devastated. Especially when John falls in love with a woman. W doesn’t care that, until now, John has been gay. She pushes John into choosing when M invites them to, what you can probably divine, an “awks” dinner party. Especially when M’s Dad F (Simon Chandler) turns up.

There are plenty of killer comic lines but what MB really nails is the constant, and often brutal, ebb and flow of coercion and pleading that all four employ to get what they want out of the situation. John is agonised by having to decide between M and W, and by implication his sexual identity, bisexual not sitting comfortably, but he is also loving the attention. M is all over the words “emotional blackmail” but he does not want to lose John. W appears more reasonable but she is still determined to “win”. The world has moved on and become more fluid in terms of sexual identity but MB’s play still plainly shows that there are personal costs (and benefits) to be negotiated in all relationships. Monogamy exerts a powerful hold on all of us it seems. I would stab a guess that Cock is the sort of play Pierre de Marivaux would be writing if he were alive today.

This is I think the first time I have been party to Kate Hewitt’s direction. If there is a better way of showing off this play, here in the round, I can’t imagine it. I see she is in the chair for Jesus Hopped The A Train at the Young Vic next year. Excellent. I have espyed the Matthew Needham at the Almeida, and after this he will reprise his role as John (no relation) in Rebecca Frecknall’s production of Summer and Smoke at the Duke of York’s and Luke Thallon stood out in MB’s Albion at the same house and, I gather, in the Young Vic The Inheritance. I’ve only seen Isabella Laughland on the telly. Anyway even a chump like me can see all three actors are destined for even greater things. I can’t imagine Georgia Lowe will get an easier gig than this in terms of design, a red square on the floor in this red auditorium, but it still is the exact right solution.

With Press, his journalism drama, now over, until the next time presumably, I can’t wait for MB’s next work. I loved Press, obvs, most notably because it seemed to wind up many members of the fourth estate because “that’s not how a newspaper works”. Numbnuts. That’s the point. It’s a drama. Which uses your grubby, noble and powerful profession to shine a light on contemporary mores. Not a documentary. Which is also not “real” and constructed. As is your own “reality”. And your stories.