“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.
“A uniquely atmospheric production; whimsical yet real, dark yet high-spirited, ‘piano’ and ‘forte’ together”
The phrase that comes to mind after witnessing “The Glass Piano” is that truth is stranger than fiction. Based on the real-life story of Princess Alexandra of Bavaria, Alix Sobler’s new play leads us through the corridors and chambers of her nineteenth century palace, and into the hearts of the characters trapped within its walls. The centrepiece is Alexandra herself who suffers from the delusion that as a child she had swallowed a grand piano made of glass, which remains inside her. Known as ‘the glass delusion’, this psychological malady was quite common amongst royals and nobles of the time, before dying out at the end of the century.
Sobler writes with a skilled hand, lacing the text with her dry humour yet still maintaining the element of fairy-tale. Beautifully crafted it touches on the absurd; occasionally jarring but always enchanting – like a piece of music that breaks the rules of harmony with unexpected notes. Conversely, the four characters of the play are very much bound by their laws, trapped by their situations and prevented from fulfilling their dreams – of love. Princess Alexandra, who thinks her life will never change, lives in the palace with her father, King Ludwig, a failed poet, and her maid, the wise Galstina. But when Lucien arrives, initially to assist the King with his writing, anything becomes possible as he challenges the status quo.
Grace Molony is quite magnificent as the princess who tiptoes sideways through doorways, terrified that the slightest disturbance would shatter the piano inside her. Combining an inner strength with the fragility of her condition, she is constantly watchable throughout, and ultimately heart-breaking when she finally finds her own way to be free. Timothy Walker’s formidable Ludwig only glimpses the love that might be before retreating again into his stubbornness, shattering the delicate dreams of those around him. Along with Suzan Sylvester as the maid who never truly knows her place, and Laurence Ubong Williams’ lovestruck Lucien, the cast of four give spellbinding performances.
However, the second act does, at times, threaten to break the spell; and as it meanders fleetingly off course, we are not entirely sure what is real or imagined. But director Max Key’s atmospheric staging continually rescues us from the inherent difficulties of the script that defies categorisation. The end result is clearly moving and magical. An experience heightened by the presence of concert pianist Elizabeth Rossiter who sits at the grand piano throughout, punctuating the play with Gabriel Prokofiev’s lyrical score. Like the text itself, the fragile underscore verges on dissonance with something beautiful underneath. Rossiter’s fingers move across the keyboard, careful not to shatter the melodies as the individual notes pierce like shards of glass. A more poignant soundtrack could not be hoped for.
A uniquely atmospheric production; whimsical yet real, dark yet high-spirited, ‘piano’ and ‘forte’ together. Small scale but grand, this is the perfect piece of theatre for the Coronet – arguably one of the finest off West End theatres in London – with unarguably the best bar.