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.
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.
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