Menier Chocolate Factory
Reviewed – 1st October 2019
“witty and intelligent in a way that both complements and complicates Austen”
Emma Woodhouse is one of Jane Austen’s most beloved characters – but what of Emma Watson? Austen abandoned her first Emma, heroine of the unfinished novel The Watsons, in 1805. Since then, several authors have sought to give Emma the ending she deserves.
Laura Wade is the latest writer to undertake the challenge, though she has the distinction of being a playwright rather than a novelist. Nor is she a relative of Austen’s, as many early contributors to The Watsons were. But, despite her apparent distance, Wade is more deeply involved than any of her predecessors.
Emma Watson (Grace Molony) was sent to live with her aunt as a child and now returns, aged nineteen, to the modest family estate. Sent straight into society, she soon has the attentions of three local men. But, just as she accepts a proposal from awkward aristocrat Lord Osborne (Joe Bannister), Laura (Louise Ford) bursts into the story to stop Emma making a terrible mistake. What follows is the story that Laura wants to tell, the story behind the telling of it, and the story of the characters that won’t let her have her way.
Even for those who aren’t Austen fans (me), The Watsons is a joy to watch. Wade’s script is witty and intelligent in a way that both complements and complicates Austen. She adds plenty of commentary, some of it topical, but much of it personal, about the struggle to write and the pressure of storytelling. In mixing her story with Austen’s, she manages to preserve what is special about the original work whilst amplifying it to new heights.
But what of the all-important end? Wade leaves us with just a taster of what is to come, but no more. Her strategy for finishing the story is as smart as the story itself, but does feel a tad rushed. There is not much insight given as to why Emma chooses to give Laura back control. I can only assume that she felt lost or afraid, but this is just speculation. A definite answer could really have cemented this, and given the audience a greater sense of Emma’s inner self.
One thing that cannot be faulted is the acting. There is not a single performance that does not hit its mark. Molony is a brilliant heroine, at once endearing and infuriating as she demands the right to tell her own story – at any cost. Louise Ford is so convincing a Laura that, for a second, you forget that there is another Laura, writing this Laura and everything else that’s going on. It is hard to choose the highlights of the remaining cast. Performances that immediately spring to mind are Jane Booker’s haughty Lady Osborne, Sally Bankes’ no nonsense Nanny, and Sophie Duval’s Mrs Robert – who, despite being ‘not in it very much’ makes her presence felt at all times. Credit must also be given to designer Ben Stones, whose blank page of a stage is the perfect space for Wade’s experimentation.
Despite initial reservations, this is one of the most enjoyable pieces of theatre I have seen in a while, full of energy and wit that even Austen herself would have found impressive. And I think I quite like Jane Austen now, which means that, not only has Laura Wade written an excellent play, she has done the impossible.
Reviewed by Harriet Corke
Photography by Manuel Harlan
Menier Chocolate Factory until 16th November
Previously reviewed at this venue:
Tomorrow at Noon
Jermyn Street Theatre
Reviewed – 1st May 2018
“these three jewels of plays sparkle like the brightest stars”
Tomorrow at Noon consists of three short plays written in response to Noel Coward’s Tonight at 8.30. Tom Littler, the Artistic Director of the Jermyn Street Theatre says that he has ‘always been fascinated by the idea of theatre as conversation,’ and the ‘conversation’ between these plays and Coward’s originals is a fascinating and successful one. There are many new plays being performed in London theatres at the moment, and in this firmament of creation these three jewels of plays sparkle like the brightest stars. All three are beautifully written and were chosen from the three hundred and ninety submissions received in a competition launched last year.
Smite is written by Morna Young, in response to Coward’s ‘The Astonished Heart.’ We see two women in a room having an awkward conversation. We don’t know what their relationship is, who they are. It is the way this relationship is gradually revealed that holds the attention so well. Laura Morgan is superb as Allie, the younger woman. She is totally convincing, funny, vulnerable and strong. Laila Pyne is less credible as the older, artistic woman, partly because she does not look old enough for the part, the age difference between the two women in the play is important, and this casting does not serve it well. Pyne is, however, excellent in the other two plays. The set is a simple evocation of a luxury apartment, and works well, but the use of sudden blackout and loud music to signify the passage of time is intrusive and unnecessary. Young has taken the basic elements of Coward’s story and created a play that is contemporary and relevant, very different from the original but true to its essence. In her introduction to the play, Young says ‘I have challenged myself to write a feminist play featuring two women talking about an absent man. On paper it would fail the Bechdel test. My aim was to look beyond the individual man but, rather, at our societal stuctures.’ She succeeded.
The Thing Itself by Emma Harding is set in rural Iceland during a volcanic eruption that has blacked out the daylight. It is a response to Coward’s ‘Shadow Play.’ A woman, Vic, is drinking in a bar when her partner, Simone, comes in. It is not immediately obvious that they are a couple, and things get more interesting when the subject of divorce is raised. Elaine Claxton’s Vic is immediately likable and interesting, holding it together with vodka and humour, she is preoccupied with an incident from the past and a heavy responsibility she feels. Laila Pyne’s Simone is American, vivacious and interesting. There is a lot of delicious humour and real emotional engagement. When Simone leaves the stage Laura Morgan enters as Hanna. She identifies herself as a figment of Vic’s imagination. There is, perhaps, an echo of Coward’s ‘Blithe Spirit’ here, a ghost, or an imagining can both change us. Harding says that she chose to write a response to ‘Shadow Play’ because she was ‘drawn to this lack of certainty, as well as the metaphorical possibilities of its title. After all, shadows contain things that are hidden or half understood, or that have yet to reveal themselves. They contain secrets, guilt and doubts.’ Hanna sits at the edge of the stage, watching. Her arrival has changed things for Vic and Simone and we are never entirely sure what is real and what is not, a tantalising uncertainty that works really well. The set is, again, simple but evocative of place and the flickering lights and sounds that convey change work this time, as they are subtle and purposeful.
Glimpse is written by Jenny Ayres as a response to Coward’s ‘Still Life.’ The stage is transformed into a railway station in the mid nineteen nineties and Clarke, the station supervisor, played by Laila Pyne, is cleaning up vomit when Elaine Claxton’s Mags arrives. She sits on a bench and settles to wait. She has many bags and a shopping trolley. A very hungover young woman, Laura Morgan, is discovered by Clarke, and dumped next to Mags on the seat. As the play evolves we see a touching relationship between three very different women. Clarke is hard working and anxious for her promotion, but also protective of Mags. Morgan’s Woman returns to the station to thank the other two for helping her. Mags waits. Elaine Claxton’s performance as Mags is quite wonderful, and a complete contrast with her portrayal of Vic in ‘The Thing Itself.’ Mags is touching, hilarious, infuriating and someone we immediately want to know more about. This is the stand out performance of the evening. The set is convincing and atmospheric, and the ingenious use of lighting and sound to show the trains passing works well. Ayres says that she set the play in the mid nineties against the background of rail privatisation because she ‘wanted to create an atmosphere of change both on a personal and a national level.’ A choice that works beautifully.
All three pieces are directed by Stella Powell-Jones with a lightness of touch and sensitivity that allows the actors to shine. Louise Whitemore’s sets are perfectly judged to evoke the different atmosphere of the three plays and Emily Stuart’s costume design works well within the context of the time periods. Tim Mascall and Tom Attwood’s lighting and sound design, apart from the jarring moments in the first play, complement and add to the set and atmosphere.
This is a delightful and worthwhile evening of theatre and I hope that all three plays go on to be seen by a wider audience.
Reviewed by Katre
Photography by Robert Workman
Tomorrow at Noon
Jermyn Street Theatre until 15th May
Also at this venue