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.

Losing Venice at the Orange Tree Theatre review ***

L0064135 Map of Venice

Losing Venice

Orange Tree Theatre, 24th September 2018

A modicum of research was all that was required to realise that this was going to be a curious, but also intriguing, entertainment. Which is near enough exactly what it was. Jo Clifford’s play was a hit at the Edinburgh fringe when it first appeared in 1985. With its story of a great Empire now in decline, and its scrutiny of strict gender roles in society, it is easy to see why the OT’s Paul Miller was drawn to revive it. The play certainly chimes with key contemporary debates on Brexit and toxic masculinity, and Jo Clifford’s own personal journey makes it more absorbing, but it is, structurally at least, something of an acquired taste.

Tim Delap plays the Pedro Tellez Geron (1574-1624) the third Duke of Osuna, a military adventurer, who, after becoming Viceroy of Sicily, and then of Naples, for Golden Age Spain, plotted to conquer Venice. The plot was uncovered and Osuna subsequently fell from favour after Philip III’s death in 1621. Jo Clifford’s play teams the Duke up with Francisco de Quevedo y Villegas, (played by Christopher Logan), a poet and secretary to Queen Ana in┬áthe Spanish Court of Felipe II. He put himself about a bit, generally ruffled feathers and was one of the prime exponents of a dramatic writing style at the time known as Conceptismo, characterised by rapid rhythm, directness, simple vocabulary, witty metaphors and word-play. It prized multiple meanings and conceptual intricacies, in stark contrast to the ornateness of rival style at the time of Culteranismo. Both were obsessed with honour, reputation and chastity building on the sort of flummery that had bedevilled the world of secular culture for centuries prior.

Now knowing this, and that Jo Clifford had previously translated some of the greats from Spanish Golden Age theatre such as Calderon de la Barca, and you can begin to understand the structure of Losing Venice. For this to is a story with multiple meanings which moves rapidly across space and time and appears quite stylised. Ms Clifford sought to take a current (in the 1980s) sensibility on politics and gender and fuse it with this ostensibly “true” history with a contemporary (for 1618) dramatic style. Designer Jess Curtis in this revival has highlighted this synthesis with her costumes which mix the Golden Age with a 1980s post-punk, New Romantic look.

The adventures of the strutting Duke and affected Quevodo draw in other parties, servants Pablo (Remus Brooks), Maria (Eleanor Fanyinka), the rejected and oddly coiffed Duchess (Florence Roberts, also a Priest), Secretary (Dan Wheeler who also provides some music), the grouchy King (David Verrey) and the prosaic “Mr and Mrs Doge” (David Verrey and Eleanor Fanyinka again). A key role is that of the Sister here played by Tia Bannon and not, unfortunately given the extra dimension this would have brought, the originally cast Josh-Susan Enright. Not that Ms Bannon didn’t try to fully commit, as did her colleagues, to the play. It is just that it is so striking in tone that I wasn’t entirely clear just how “inside” the characters Paul Miller wished them to be. The knowing, and sometimes farcical, tone, the sense that the performers, indeed the whole play, was “looking into” the events as a metaphor or lesson for something else, the decline of Empire and the desire of boys to always go fighting, didn’t completely take over, such that it could just be read as a rapid, and somewhat bitty, and increasingly odd, history play, (where I would guess most of the audience didn’t know the history).

Still once you adjusted to this idiosyncratic form there was stuff to savour and it didn’t drag on, even giving us an interval to ponder what was going on. The Duke doesn’t really do consequences, is locked in the past, sees everything as a contest and takes vanity to extremes. His fading libido is conjoined with that of his country. All in all a prize dickhead not unlike a few of our current crop of deluded politicians. Quevedo’s pen may be mightier than his sword but his fine words don’t necessarily resonate with his master and there are a whole heap of unbuttered parsnips here. The women and servants look on with various degrees of exasperation. Eleanor Mayinka stands out as the sympathetic Maria but maybe just because she is the most sincere character in the play.

So this might be a play whose novelty has played out, or it might be a play that was over-praised in the first place. Or maybe it is, as my Mum would have said, “too clever for its own good”. Or maybe it is a production where the normally very reliable Paul Miller couldn’t quite make up his mind. Or rather where he couldn’t quite pin down this slippery, and odd, fish. Or maybe, for once, the OT space was a hindrance not a help. I think it might be a little bit of all of these things but offsetting this is a spark of invention and bravado that I, for one, am always happy to see. Even if it didn’t quite come off, I can safely say I haven’t ever seen anything like it. And that it itself is no small praise. A counter to the excess of lazy literalism which pollutes the body politic is surely no bad thing.