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 Writer at the Almeida Theatre review *****

writer

The Writer

Almeida Theatre, 9th May 2018

The Writer is …. an absolutely staggering piece of …. writing. No other way to say it. I’d wager there were a few punters in the audience that disagree with me but I think Ella Hickson, along with director Blanche McIntyre and the rest of the creative team, and an outstanding cast, have conjured up a masterpiece. In the same breath it provokes, educates and entertains. It deserves a much wider audience that the well-heeled punters like the Tourist who make up the Almeida throng. Whilst the Almeida may not immediately struck you as part of the solution to the problem of access for telling stories from women on stage, it was heartening to see this project realised there.

It starts with an impellent Lara Rossi, (who is more than a match for Romola Garai, superb as the eponymous Writer), playing a young actor/writer who, post performance, eloquently demolishes the lazy, sexist premises on which a complacent Samuel West’s direction is constructed. As she says theatre is “famous people, doing boring things badly”! Men are judged on what they produce, women on how fuckable they are. They have inevitably met before. We discover though that they are acting out the Writer’s text and sharply shift to a staged Q&A in which the nervous, tongue-tied Writer’s work is undermined by the “real” Director imperiously played by Michael Gould who praises its “promise” but inveigles against it lack of “structure”. Just who is going to watch this sort of stuff?

Scene two switches to the home of the Writer and partner, also Samuel West, who bullies and cajoles the Writer into agreeing to adapting her work into a film. It is all about him. She yearns for, and needs, more. The “biological clock” is invoked. The next, I think deliberately disorientating and galling, scene sees the Writer in a safe, supportive female only space, a jungle-y retreat of sorts, invoking Semele and other Origin mythological mumbo-jumbo (with some fantastic realisation from Richard Howell’s lighting, Emma Laxton’s sound and Zakk Hein’s video). Scene four sees the now confident Writer arguing with Michael Gould’s director about the play to date. He is viciously pulling the prior scene apart, whilst patronisingly banging on about the “rawness” of the opening. The final scene sees the writer with another partner, this time played by Lara Rossi. The compromises and imbalances of scene two are revisited.

From this structure Ella Hickson is able to explore fundamental arguments about how power, the patriarchy and contemporary capitalism, (as Lara Rossi’s character explains early on), affects, and infects, the creative process, art and the theatre and our relationships. It is a polemic of sorts, but Ms Hickson dissects her material, with fearless, supple and sceptical self-awareness. It confronts and confounds the audience, for sure, is intellectually reflexive, but avoids aggressive predictable dialectic. It revels in, and reveals, the artifice of theatre. Which in some ways makes Romola Garai’s performance, remember she has to convincingly “act” this all out, even more remarkable.

If thats sounds like a recipe for a dry evening, think again. The “drama” is delivered with real passion, even anger, with wit, and with a formal inventiveness, that left the Tourist with bum glued to his seat, ears straining, mouth open. Anna Fleischle’s design, (and the on-stage managers), intelligently accommodate the play’s inversions with repeated construction and de-construction. Ultimately though it is the control that Ella Hickson exerts over her themes, assisted by Blanche McIntyre, that makes this brilliant. It twists and turns but it knows exactly what it is doing and saying.

I learnt a lot. I recognise the behaviours exhibited by the men on stage here, especially Samuel West in the second scene. I don’t know how to avoid them. I do know I had to think very hard about what I would say about the play. It will make you want to argue. Ideally not while it is going on although maybe we should.

At one point, forgive me I forget when, the point is made that the Writer will move on to more established theatrical storytelling forms. Presumably this will be so for Ms Hickson thought I doubt she will write anything as powerful as this story about the struggle to tell women’s stories. Mind you Oil was a work of near genius in my book and also shows she isn’t going to fuck about with little subjects. I think she might just be the best and most challenging writer for the British stage right now. Ignore those who will say this is just irritating, indulgent self-therapy. They are wrong. Leave them to watch nonsense like that revival of Absolute Hell or Rattigan knock-offs. This is what theatre is all about.