One of the big hits of last year – but which left me cold – was Laura Wade’s Home I’m Darling, a clever construct that merged the 1950s with the present day, but which for me lacked substance, characterisation and conviction. I’m perfectly prepared to accept that I’m out of kilter on that one. I’d already seen another of Ms Wade’s plays, Posh, as performed by the University of Northampton Acting Students and a jolly good fist they made of it. Having enjoyed that, I thought I’d give Ms Wade another chance with The Watsons, a co-production between the Menier and Chichester Festival Theatre, both of whom I pretty much trust to come up with good productions and performances. And whilst you can see certain elements linking both plays – messing around with time, fooling the audience into thinking one scenario is happening when in fact another is secretly operating over and above it – I’m delighted to say that Home I’m Darling isn’t a patch on The Watsons, which is currently convincing me is one of the best new plays written in the 21st century.
If you want to miss any spoilers, skip this paragraph, although if you’re interested in seeing the play, you may well already know its trick up its sleeve. The Watsons is an unfinished book of Jane Austen’s; she started writing it in 1803 and shelved it after a few chapters. We don’t know why she stopped writing it; and the play is Laura Wade’s method of exploring this mystery and imagining what story might have evolved from the bare bones that survived. Emma, the youngest of the Watson girls, returns to the family fold much to the interest of local society, and the curiosity of her brother and sisters. Will she be courted by young Lord Osborne, whose family own the posh house? Or might she fall for the dignified poverty of Mr Howard the clergyman? Or, heavens forfend, will she choose the dashing cad Tom Musgrave? Just as she’s about to consider favourably an offer of marriage, Laura, ostensibly a maid but actually the author, crashes into the story and stops Emma from underselling herself. Once Laura has crossed the divide between Jane Austen’s characters and real life, her adaptation task is made so much harder, as the characters themselves demand a say in what happens… and the result is, literally, anarchy.
Yes, it’s a play about the creative process – something I always find extremely rewarding – bringing the creator herself up close and personal in conflict with her characters and plotline. The play gives Ms Wade a chance to explore the differences between reality and fiction; there’s delight when the characters realise they will never die, for example, but a shock when they discover they will never progress; much to the horror of ten-year-old Charles Howard, who realises he will always be a boy and never get to discover what’s hidden inside ladies’ underwear. There’s also a lot of fun to be had by bringing both the modern world and the theatre world into the characters’ lives, and each funny little idea that Ms Wade writes into the text is only ever used once, which keeps the play constantly inventive and evolving.
Despite the idea of a writer confronting his characters not being 100% original – Laura herself mentions Pirandello when chatting to David the producer on her mobile – the construction of this play is so fresh and so tight, and so beautifully carried out by a cast who do not put a foot wrong, even by the most minor of the 19 roles that pack out the tiny Menier stage, that the production is a complete joy. Ben Stones’ design helps to accentuate the differences between Austen’s era and today, with simple touches like the minimalist plastic red chair that Laura sits on to workshop the story with the cast who are all seated opposite her in regency white. I had to chuckle when I saw that her coffee cup bears the symbol of the Sheffield Crucible’s Centre Stage Loyalty club.
Even when their characters are developing way beyond what Jane Austen might have expected of them, each of the nineteenth century cast plays it absolutely straight, which intensifies the hilarity all the more. Only Louise Ford, as Laura, is allowed the space to reflect and speak in the modern manner, much to the amazement of her Georgian counterparts. It’s a beautiful performance, laden with responsibility towards Austen, the characters, the audience, everyone; delivered with embarrassed uncertainty and occasional goofiness. She is matched by Grace Molony’s Emma, at first miffed that her chance of a fine marriage has been thwarted, who grows into a delightful 200-year-old rebel, with a perfect blend of the demure and the cunning.
Paksie Vernon is excellent as the put-upon Elizabeth, Jane Booker tremendously haughty as Lady Osborne, Joe Bannister hilariously tongue-tied as her uppercrust son, Laurence Ubong Williams marvellously roguish as cad Tom, Sophie Duval delightfully pompous as Mrs Robert, Sally Bankes brilliant as the surprisingly political Nanny, and with the rest of the cast all turning in superb supporting performances. At our show, young Charles was played by Isaac Forward and he was effortlessly fantastic.
The run of The Watsons at the Menier continues until 16th November – but it’s completely sold out. I’m not surprised. Surely a West End transfer must follow; this is far too good a play and production to end here. I don’t do star ratings – but this gets a 5*!
Production photos by Manuel Harlan