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:
Duke of York’s Theatre
Reviewed – 3rd September 2019
“an ordinary play in so many ways, and yet it is simultaneously extraordinary”
Everything about The Son is arresting. It is difficult to watch and even harder not to.
This is the final play in Florian Zeller’s loosely connected familial trilogy, which began with 2012’s The Father. Here we join Anne (Amanda Abbington) and Pierre (John Light), a divorced couple who must reconnect for the sake of their only son. Nicolas (Laurie Kynaston) has been a completely different person since the divorce, and now Anne can no longer cope with his self-isolation, anger, or (as of late) truancy. Moving in with Pierre and his new girlfriend Sofia (Amaka Okafor) seems like the solution – but what was the problem to begin with? As Nicolas’ thoughts begin to unravel, so does his family’s belief in the son they thought they knew.
The Son is an ordinary play in so many ways, and yet it is simultaneously extraordinary. This is apparent even before the play begins. The sight of Lizzie Clachan’s set – a chic suburban living room flooded with symbolic pieces of debris – is enough to indicate the carefully constructed tumult that is to follow.
It is only afterwards that these objects (children’s toys, a mounted deer head) really strike the observer as important. This is because, for all the busyness on stage, it is the actors that draw all the focus. Laurie Kynaston is utterly believable as Nicolas. He stays clear of melodramatic clichés and instead pools the depths of Zeller’s writing to draw out an emotionally authentic character. John Light is fascinating to watch as Pierre, a flawed yet deeply caring father whose frustration manifests itself in uncomfortable ways. Despite the unsavoury aspects of his character, Light humanises Pierre, making his position understandable if not agreeable. Amaka Okafor transforms Sofia into a complex character, a woman who is both loving and resentful of her volatile stepson. Okafor surprises in every scene, and is able to navigate the twists and turns of her character with flair. There is strong support from Amanda Abbington, who is sadly not present enough throughout the story. When she is present, however, she radiates love and warmth, an ideal balance to Light’s ferocity.
Whilst Zeller is evasive about the details of Nicolas’ illness, he pulls no punches with how it is presented. He wrings every last drop of emotion from the scenarios he presents, investing every one with a subtly disarming twist. Zeller’s approach – to turn his characters inside out and hold them up for all to see – makes The Son all the more difficult to watch. There is a universal sense of pain here: this family is not particularly special, not marked by excessive trauma, but in many ways just ordinary, in a way that makes its dissolution even crueller. It is clear that Nicolas is surrounded by love, just not the right kind. And we as an audience know that it will never be the right kind – but we still fall in love with those moments of laughter and lightness that suggest it might be so. The vague accumulation of dread sits uneasily within these moments of joy in what is a true emotional test for even most disconnected audience member.
Beautifully and assuredly executed, The Son may mark a completion of a trilogy, but is surely the sign of many more great works to come.
Reviewed by Harriet Corke
Photography by Marc Brenner
Duke of York’s Theatre until 2nd November
Previously reviewed at this venue: