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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Watsons
Menier Chocolate Factory   Autumn 2019; Harold Pinter Theatre Summer 2020

This is a very very funny comedy, and I recommend it enthusiastically.

After that, I'm not sure what to say, because this adaptation by Laura Wade of an unfinished Jane Austen novel is so filled with twists, surprises and reveals that almost anything I say will be a spoiler.

So please forgive me as I spoil things as little as I can.

Jane Austen abandoned her novel The Watsons for unknown reasons, having got as far as introducing the characters and setting up the situation.

Emma Watson, the youngest and brightest of three unmarried sisters, looks around at the country society she lives in and finds a recognisable mix of Austen types – shallow men, silly women and others with one comic failing or another.

The novel's problem is that Emma must wed, but who should she choose (assuming they offer) – the rakish young man, the dark brooding young man, the almost terminally shy but rich young man, or the admirable but poor clergyman?

Adaptor Laura Wade, director Samuel West and an attractive cast present this set-up with exactly the right stylishness, partly respectful, partly sprightly romp and partly tongue-in-cheek send-up.

But then we reach the end of Austen's manuscript. And here is my first (and I hope last) spoiler.

A new character named Laura Wade appears and tries to explain to Emma and the others that they are not real live people but characters in a novel and play, and that she, the playwright, is having trouble deciding what to do with them next.

Things get a little Pirandello at that point, with some overtones of the 2006 Emma Thompson-Will Ferrell movie Stranger Than Fiction.

Suffice to say – since I really don't want to give anything more away – that the onstage Laura's attempts to maintain control over her increasingly rebellious and independent characters while still finding an ending for the Austen story make up the rest of the play.

There is a lot more, and it is all surprising and hilarious, while always – and a salute to the real Laura Wade for this – retaining the spirit of the Austen universe.

Grace Molony makes Emma the perfect Austen heroine – intelligent, witty, observant, practical and sexy – even as events take her further and further away from where the story started out.

As Laura, Louise Ford amusingly captures the confusion and mounting panic of a would-be playwright with writer's block who increasingly discovers that 's the least of her problems.

There is strong and generous (because always serving the play and production) comic support from Joe Bannister, Sophie Duval, Jane Booker, Laurence Ubong Williams, Sally Bankes and a uniformly excellent large cast.

You don't have to know your Pride And Prejudice from your Carry On Jane to enjoy this clever, inventive, repeatedly surprising and thoroughly delightful romp.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  The Watsons  - Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre 2019

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