The Watsons

Laura Wade, Adapted from the Unfinished Novel by Jane Austen
Chichester Festival Theatre
Menier Chocolate Factory
to

This delightfully subversive new play, which first saw the light of day at Chichester Festival Theatre, belies expectations in quite startling fashion.

Like Charles Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood, The Watsons is that barely painted canvas, an unfinished novel created by a literary genius.

The difference here is that, rather than the author’s death preventing completion, some kind of writer’s block led to Miss Austen putting this book aside, preferring to write (and complete) three others instead.

Although designer Ben Stones uses minimalist principles, together with tell-tale moving walls, the opening is largely traditional, allowing for the relatively compact space available.

The novel, as far as it gets, is pure Jane Austen. It features the difficulties faced by Grace Molony’s Emma Watson (not the Harry Potter film star) as a youngest child of an impecunious parson in rural Surrey.

In simple terms, the choices available to the Watson sisters lie between marriage to an unsuitable rich man, to a suitable poor man or, heaven forfend, becoming a teacher. The alternative option of dallying with the town cad, Lawrence Ubong Williams suitably charming in the role of Tom Musgrave, is posited but never taken seriously.

Sweet Miss Watson, having been brought up by rich aunt who inconveniently marries and ditches her, is bored by Joe Bannister as stuttering Lord Osborne, charmed by Tim Delap playing penniless pastor Mr Howard and persuaded by Paksie Vernon portraying her wise sister Elizabeth that teaching is out of the question for a well-bred young lady.

Having created the intrigue, Jane Austen apparently tired of the subject leaving behind plenty of opportunity for writers of the future to impose their own conclusions.

Inexplicably, as Miss Watson reluctantly accepts Lord Osborne’s offer of marriage and comfort, a maid who has been eavesdropping steps in and stops proceedings, telling her not to be so stupid and greedy.

This, it transpires, is none other than Laura Wade, the writer of this play, except that it isn’t, since she is represented on stage by the equally modern Louise Ford.

What had started out as a faithful adaptation of a Victorian novel instantly transforms into what the writer eventually acknowledges is an homage to the great Sicilian Luigi Pirandello, that might reasonably have been entitled Twelve Characters in Search of an Author.

While Laura Wade (the character) attempts to persuade her reluctant heroine to follow a 21st-century path to happiness, rather than taking the 200-year-old route, her characters begin to realise their own power.

They enthusiastically challenge the right of the writer to determine their futures, suggesting that they would prefer to do so themselves.

What follows is simultaneously a perceptive analysis of character and absolutely hilarious. Some might suggest that the eventual outcomes achieved by both Laura Wades, not to mention the dozen stage beings attempting to assert their own independence, might be far distant from anything that Jane Austen could conceivably have created.

However, this 2¼-hour extravaganza directed by Samuel West is very amusing, totally gripping and novel in the non-literary sense, with every chance of a West End transfer. As such, it should go straight on to any serious theatregoer’s (or open-minded Jane Austen fan’s) must-see list.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher