The Watsons review – Menier Chocolate Factory

 

5 star review

I remember the thrill, back in my distant university days, of my first encounter with Pirandello’s meta-theatre classic Six Characters in Search of an Author.

Well, Laura Wade has stirred me into a similar state of excitement with her new play, based on an unfinished novel by Jane Austen.

For the first half an hour or so The Watsons runs like a familiar period drama – all ball gowns, marriage talk and dashing suitors – and then in walks a maid who drops a jarring Star Wars reference during a conversation with the lead character, Emma Watson.

The maid turns out to be Laura, the playwright, who has written herself into the story just at the point where Jane Austen gave up on it.

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Grace Molony (Emma Watson) in The Watsons (photo: Manuel Harlan)

Are you keeping up? What follows is a glorious exploration of the creative process and what it would be like if fictional characters could decide their own destinies.

“Yes, it is a bit like the Pirandello,” admits Laura during a phone call in which she’s pitching her play idea. Meanwhile, Jane Austen’s creations are adjusting to life in the modern world, discovering smart phones and voting for self-determination.

Director Samuel West injects the whole meta experience with a huge sense of fun as well as emotional punch.  There’s a wonderful moment where the Austen characters spy a plastic chair as they arrive for a meeting with Laura, and regard it with a mix of bewilderment and suspicion.

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The Watsons cast (photo: Manuel Harlan)

Grace Molony is perfect in the role of Emma, who from the outset seems a heroine destined to break from convention. Her sparky conversations with the excellent Louise Ford as Laura are a joy. There’s great support too from Laurence Ubong Williams as the handsome cad Tom Musgrave and Joe Bannister as the socially awkward Lord Osborne.

Overall, this is a fantastic timey-wimey trip into the Jane Austen universe that’s surely destined for even bigger things in the West End.

Go on, Laura, you could write that ending now.

The Watsons is at the Menier Chocolate Factory until 16 November

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posh review – Oxford Playhouse and touring

4 star review

The first thing we see in this touring production of Laura Wade’s Posh is one of its characters, a Tory politician, reading the The Telegraph with a front page dominated by a giant photograph of Boris Johnson.

First seen in 2010, Posh has always been a political satire, but the timing of this revival – opening in Oxford in the same week that the new prime minister made his parliamentary debut – makes it seem more relevant than ever.

For most of the play we are in the company of 10 members of The Riot Club, an elite Oxford dining society which has hired a private room at a local country gastropub for a night of drunken debauchery.

Wade has always pointed out that her story is pure fiction – inspired by Oxford University’s real-life Bullingdon Club (past members include David Cameron, George Osborne and Boris Johnson) – and the show’s programme helpfully decodes some of the Riot Club lingo such as “beasting” (public pre-dinner punishment), “chateaued” (being absolutely drunk beyond belief) and “trashmeister” (you can probably guess that one).

Posh is a bitingly funny portrait of an entitled class who believe that money will buy them out of any sticky situation. The laughs however become more nervous as the story enters its darker final act. It isn’t called the Riot Club for nothing.

Tyger Drew-Honey (from TV sitcom Outnumbered) makes an impressive stage debut as Alistair Ryle, who delivers a memorable rallying speech to his fellow toffs about their superiority over the poorer classes.

There are excellent performances throughout, particularly from Jack Whittle as dashing Harry Villiers, Matthew Entwistle as Toby Maitland (a student who gets a beasting for having brought the club into disrepute) and Adam Mirsky as Guy Bellingfield, who attempts to impress his fellow students by arranging a “ten bird roast”.

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The play’s two female characters are strongly played by Isobel Laidler, as the landlord’s waitress daughter Rachel, and Ellie Nunn as prostitute Charlie. Both give short shrift to the boys’ vile behaviour. I also admired Peter McNeil O’Connor’s portrayal of hapless landlord Chris.

As part of his set design, Will Coombes cleverly suspends a number of gilded portraits in mid-air over the pub dining room, lending it the air of a stately home, while director Lucy Hughes does a great job choreographing the climactic trashing scene.

I last saw Posh in the West End in 2012, when Laura Wade told me how she’d updated it from its original version to reflect the changing politics of the time. 

Like the vintage red wines that the Riot Club members quaff in extremis, this already impressive play has aged beautifully.

Posh began at Oxford Playhouse, and is now on a UK tour visiting Cambridge, Bath, Kingston, and Mold.