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.

The Outsider at the Print Room Coronet review ****

albert-camus

The Outsider

Print Room Coronet, 19th September 2018

Tricky one this. I can’t pretend I was pinned back in my seat by the two and a half hours of Ben Okri’s adaptation of Albert Camus’ absurd existentialist classic written in 1942. Abbey Wright’s careful direction injects a little humour, (a dog is played by a mop and the trial scene is undercut with satire), but otherwise doesn’t take liberties with either Camus’ story or this intelligent text. The monochrome set, complete with multiple fans, and costume designs of Richard Hudson, bolster the sense of ennui. The Print Room dry ice machine gets yet another comprehensive work out. The plot, French Algerian bloke, bored at work as a clerk, can’t really get worked up about Mum’s death, finds girlfriend but can’t commit, gets involved with rum type neighbour, gets very hot, kills Algerian, is tried and condemned without really explaining himself, has its moments but isn’t going to pack them in at the Victoria Palace any time soon.

Yet this unhurried, unequivocal approach slowly and surely yields dividends assisted by an outstanding performance from Sam Frenchum. Now the Tourist got an inkling into of the talent of young Sam in the role of Hal in the Park Theatre’s excellent revival of Joe Orton’s Loot this time last year. Hal may not be the sharpest too in the box, so needs to be played dumb to get the laughs, but we need to see how his jealously of lover and criminal sidekick intensifies through the farce. That we got. Here though the young man, who is on stage throughout, rises up to a different challenge, gradually uncovering a man in Mersault, who reveals nothing. His delivery is deliberately monotone but far from mechanical. I expect him to go on to bigger things from here (actorally if not philosophically).

The pace gives the audience plenty of time to ruminate on what drives Mersault and why he is like he is. In the same way as the book. Ostensibly simple, almost banal, Mersault’s story yields pointed insight into the human condition, and specifically, the notion of alienation, of Mersault being a “stranger” or “outsider” to his own life and in the society around him. His utter indifference. Of course you might think it is a load of pretentious Gallic guff which only those who think too much and/or have too much time on their hands could possibly think is of any value. You might be right but I respectfully suggest you give it a go. After all you surely must have experienced the feeling of being utterly bemused by what is going on around you or unable to summon up apparently required emotions. Camus’ absurdist philosophy, his utter scepticism, is pretty bleak but it is ultimately truthfully humanist, even if it doesn’t always feel very human and can jar with post-modern sensibilities. It still needs to be understood though.

The book is written in the first person. Ben Okri has preserved that structure with Mersault speaking direct to audience in key passages to detail his experiences, perceptions, feelings, motivations, or more precisely lack thereof, whilst mixing this up with action across 13 speaking characters (and a few brave community locals). His first date with Marie Cardona (an innocently upbeat Vera Chok) on the beach, the murder, when he is alone in the cell and large parts of the courtroom scenes are straight narrative: the interactions with Raymond (an intimidating Sam Alexander), the undertaker and his defence lawyer (Josh Barrow moving swiftly on from his fine performance in The Silk Road at Trafalgar Studios), his boss and the prosecuting lawyer (David Carlyle) and the director and examining magistrate (Mark Penfold) are largely dialogue, though even here the sense that Mersault is at once removed from his own “reality” is palpable. Mind you he certainly “comes alive” when he violently rejects religion in the powerful scene with the chaplain (John Atterbury).

Mr Okri has preserved the minimalist quality of Camus’ text, or at least the translation I remember reading years ago, but still offers enough “colour” for Abbey Wright, lighting designer David Plater, sound designer Matt Regan and movement director Joyce Henderson to work with. Mind you he doesn’t quite scale the spartan heights of Robert Smith lyrics in The Cure’s early classic Killing An Arab.

If you do take the opportunity to see this production at the Print Room, there are a handful of tickets left, or if it pops up elsewhere, which it should, then don’t miss the accompanying short film by Mitra Tabrizian with text, in Arabic, once again from Ben Okri, which imagines events from the perspective of the Arab. Camus’ novel is discomforting in many ways, as was his principled ambivalence to Algerian independence, but giving a voice to the nameless Arab, here Mohamed Moulfath, (in the play Archie Backhouse), in a way similar to the 2014 novel The Mersault Investigation by Kamel Daoud, offers a valuable alternative perspective.