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 Crucible at the Yard Theatre review ****

The Crucible

The Yard Theatre, Hackney Wick, 29th April 2019

The latest instalment in the Tourist’s engagement with this year’s unofficial Arthur Miller season was director Jay Miller’s often insightful, occasionally daft take on The Crucible which for me, and I know this is not the aesthete’s choice, probably just about trumps Death of a Salesman as Arthur Miller’s greatest play.

BTW it looks like, as any fool might have guessed, that the Young Vic and Marianne Elliott, and the stunning cast, have played a blinder with the now-opened revival of Death of a Salesman. This was predictably likely to be one of the best plays in London this year. And so it seems it is.

BTW again. I have been talking to some ypung people. Or rather I have been talking at some young people. At MS and MSC’s wedding amongst other ocassions so technically they had no means of escape. They, like MS and BD, hold Arthur Miller in low regard. I have a feeling that English Lit teachers may have been giving the poor chap a hard time. I get that there is some evidence in his life to support this, and revealed most explicitly in After The Fall, to pin him as an arrogant misogynist, who abandoned his disabled son, trashed the reputation of ex-wife Marilyn Monroe, stuck with impossibly idealistic political positions secure in his ivory tower and repeated himself to diminishing effect in terms of issues and form in his later plays. But, for me, his greatest plays are about as good as drama gets, and that is what matters.

And these plays can still thrive even when starved of creative sympathy. Especially The Crucible. As some sage observes in the Time Out review for this very production The Crucible is “built like a brick shithouse”. Correct. This apparently is the first time that The Yard Theatre has produced a classic play. It has played host to some others’ interpretations, notably Rash Dash’s wham-bam take on Three Sisters. But now Jay Miller and his young cast have given his namesake the shoestring, experimental once-over. Now the Yard, for the uninitiated, is exactly how a privileged, well-off, ageing, ex-City, liberal, insulated, South West Londoner imagines a theatre in edgy East London should look like. Scruffy space, ropey bogs, wooden benches now helpfully rendered fit for purpose with plastic seats. On a site by a canal, in an old industrial estate, next to the ginger line, two brew pubs on the site, (nice pizza courtesy of CRATE), creative spaces, studios, artisanal food-makers, cheek by jowl with old school light industry and breakers yards’. And graffiti. Lots of graffiti. Oh and beards. Lots of beards.

Love it. The Tourist is now looking for ways to get some of his chums to make the trek there. For even with the new material it presents this theatre is making a mark. I like the look of the upcoming Armadillo and its cast and hope that something beyond that might tempt his picky punters. The Yard is now getting Arts Council funding so expect it, like the Arcola, to go from strength to strength.

Probably should have pushed those punters a bit harder on this Crucible. they would have been intrigued. There are a few quirks – the TV screen announcing characters and other visual distractions sat on a chair, the spooky, masked witches that pop up in the later scenes, some extravagant Massachusetts c. 1692 accents, European regie-theater use of microphones, a spot of karaoke – that might bemuse rather than illuminate. But there are other innovations that manifestly do work. The cast kicking off on name-tagged chairs describing characters and context, and even stage directions and Miller’s own footnotes (A not J though that might have worked too); then slowly donning “period” dress (designed by Oliver Cronk) and taking on those accents; the doubling and truly gender blind casting; some dramatic lighting (Jess Bernberg) and ensemble effects; Jonah Brody’s ambient score and Josh Anio Grigg’s killer sound design. Brechtian and disorientating for sure but ramping up the strangeness of the events here and counterpointing the McCarthyite parable.

Since The Crucible is actually a belter of a story independent of its meaning then all this collectively serves to make us more engaged in what is happening as the hysteria in this ramshackle Salem boils over and the epic sacrifices by the Proctors are made. For surely The Crucible is as epic as anything Brecht or Euripides ever conjured up despite its superficially “historical” setting. Hence the link back to those opening quotes from Arthur M highlighting the historical inaccuracies. This is where Jay Miller’s mad genius pays dividends across the full 3 hours he commits to the production.

Young Mr Miller is plainly a clever fellow. For not only has smartly subverted the mythic quality of the play, whilst still retaining its dramatic power, (though like I say I have never actually see a bad production of The Crucible), and emotional connection, (I don’t actually well up when JP hangs on to his name but …..), but he has also feminised A Miller’s muscular language, exaggerated in The Crucible by the C17 New England idiom, with his casting of Caoilfhionn Dunne as John Proctor and Sophie Duval as Giles Corey (as well as Abigail Williams’s chief sidekick Mercy Lewis). Now as it happens these two are the best of the very talented bunch on show. I have seen Ms Dunne before, most recently in Mike Bartlett’s Wild, in The Nest at the Young Vic, on my allotted night at the Gate’s Dear Elizabeth and, most memorably at that same theatre in Suzy Storck, (where Cecile Tremolieres was, as she is here, the innovative designer). This was proof of just how much emotion she can wring from a character and so it proved again with her John Proctor, dim at first, but full beam by the time we get to the confession. Sophie Duval showed us intense pathos when Giles Corey loses his book reading wife to the madness but also plenty of laughs with Corey’s pithy comments about the venal motives of those egging on the teenage accusers.

It is usual to have sympathy for the scorned Abigail Williams. Not much though in Nina Cassells’s take where she has no discernible remorse for the carnage she unleashes. The scene when she meets Proctor, who begs her to recant, is especially chilling. The argument between, in this case, the two women, contrasts with the tetchy and tense arguments between JP and his (good)wife, played by Emma D’Arcy, in the Proctor house and then later the desperate exchange as JP wills her to lie on his behalf. I didn’t see Ms D’Arcy in Mrs Dalloway at the Arcola, (couldn’t find a date that worked for the willing SO), but it seems we missed a trick there. I am reminded that she mastered a tricky role in the unfairly maligned, if scattergun, Against at the Almeida as a complex student. The female side of the casting is completed by Sorcha Groundsell as the alternately, bolshie, brave and intimidated Mary Warren, (the weakest of A Miller’s Crucible characters IMHO). (I gather she has signed up for Netflix series The innocents – good on her). And a spirited (literally) Lucy Vandi as Tituba and the irksome Mr and Mrs Nurse.

As for the gents, Syrus Lowe, fresh from The Inheritance, offers a petulant, self aggrandising Reverend Parris, the willing executioner, as well as the officious Willard and Cheever, Jack Holden manages to avoid the trap of letting Reverend Hale descend into melodramatic self-pity as his faith is broken, and Jacob James Beswick stands out as “the Judges” Hathorne and Danforth, who care more about order and power than true justice.

The doubling shows us that there is good and bad in all of us, though you have to hope yours isn’t going to be exposed by witchcraft trials, and that we are all capable of overlooking or conniving in state sanctioned persecution. The Crucible was written as allegory prompted by his mate Elia Kazan’s naming of 8 members of the Group Theatre to the House Un-American Activities Committee. Following the opening of The Crucible Miller also went before the Committee in 1957, had his passport confiscated, was held in contempt and sentenced to a fine and imprisonment. The “conviction” was overturned the following year but hardened Miller’s political views. He made up with Kazan years later. (As it happens Miller managed to get his work banned in the Soviet Union in the late 1960s as well, proving he was doing something right). Whilst, as I have said, the message of The Crucible and its dramatic power can stand all sorts of treatment, there is no doubt that Jay Miller’s radical take, at its best, offers an exciting and dislocating perspective on the play. A Miller took liberties with the “true” story of the Salem witch-hunts. Jay Miller is simply returning the favour.

The Crucible, like most of A Miller’s greatest plays, is ripped straight from the play book of Sophocles. John Proctor is the archetype tragic hero whose peripeteia (reversal of fortune) is brought on by his hamartia (fatal flaw) which leads him to anagnorisis (self discovery). All the very best plays, the ones that jump out, thump us in chest and head and leave us exhilarated, follow the Greek rules moreorless closely. Well maybe I exaggerate a bit. Though the following, including some of the Greek originals, suggests I might just be right. These plainly should be on everyone’s theatrical bucket list.

  • The Oresteia – Aeschylus
  • Oedipus the King – Sophocles
  • Medea – Euripides – (I know – it broke the rules)
  • Tamburlaine the Great – Marlowe – (see if you don’t end up quite liking the fella)
  • Hamlet – Shakespeare
  • Phedre – Racine
  • Woyzeck – Georg Buchner
  • The Master Builder – Ibsen
  • Long Day’s Journey Into Night – Eugene O’Neill – (four for the price of one)
  • All My Sons – Arthur Miller – (or Death of a Salesman or A View From The Bridge)
  • The Goat, or Who is Sylvia – Edward Albee
  • The Ferryman – Jez Butterworth – (work with me on this)

See what I mean.