“a powerful play that is sure to have you gripped from beginning to end”
As we enter Park Theatre’s smallest performance space, Park90, the eerie, sinister feel of Kate Barton’s play, Fast, is immediately made clear. Dimly lit and murky, the set genuinely looks like the setting of a horror film, decorated with leaves, branches, and ripped sheets on the ceiling, to name a few features.
Fast is based on the true story of Linda Hazzard, an American “doctor” who promoted fasting as a treatment and cure for illness at the turn of the 20th century. Hazzard is portrayed exceptionally by Caroline Lawrie, with her demeanour perfectly capturing a determined, albeit somewhat warped and disturbing woman. Lawrie has the ability to both charm and shock the audience in equal measure.
Natasha Cowley and Jordon Stevens play sisters Dora and Claire Williamson. The pair are enticed into being admitted to Hazzard’s sanatorium, believing her alternative methods will cure them of any ill-health they are experiencing. Near the beginning of the piece we learn of the relationship between the two sisters, with light-hearted banter taking place as they discuss their plans. The cast of four is completed by Daniel Norford, who plays Horace Cayton Jnr, a reporter intent on exposing Hazzard.
Once at the sanatorium, things quickly escalate for the Williamson sisters as they are subjected to Hazzard’s fasting treatments and their conditions take a turn for the worse. These sections of the play are particularly chilling and, at times, quite hard to watch.
Costume designer, Emily Bestow, who also designed the set, excels with her choice of clothing for the actors, which portrays the period very well. Sound design by David Chilton is also effective and helps with capturing the sinister nature of the story. Ben Bull’s lighting and projection design adds to this further and projections detailing dates and newspaper headlines remind us that we watching a play based on real events.
Kate Valentine has directed Fast in such a way that we feel as though we are sat in Hazzard’s sanatorium and witnessing these shocking events that occurred all those years ago. The acting from everyone involved, visual elements and sound all combine to create a powerful play that is sure to have you gripped from beginning to end.
“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.