A CurtainUp London Review
Transferring from the smaller house, the Minerva in Chichester, to London's intimate Menier Chocolate Factory with its cast of 19, yes 19, this richly peopled production recreates the Regency world of Jane Austen's novels. The first act is almost pure Austen setting the scene. Emma Watson (Grace Molony) the youngest Watson sister has returned to live at home with her ailing father, a retired and widowed parson, Mr Watson (John Wilson Goddard), who is cared for by the eldest Watson sister Elizabeth (Paksie Vernon). The Watson family have little or no money and no prospects after Emma has been sent home by her richer aunt who has made a foolish second marriage. Emma has been better educated and schooled in society than her other sisters.
We are introduced to the neighbours, three men as marriageable prospects. The first Tom Musgrave (Laurence Ubong Williams) is handsome and charming but reckoned to be a bit of a cad. His friend is the local landowner, Lord Osborne (Joe Bannister), rich but rather nervous and clumsy socially. Finally there is the Osborne's family vicar, the clergyman Mr Howard (Tim Delap) who has a ward living with him, his nephew Charles aged 10 (Sonny Fowler).
In the first scene Emma is getting ready for the ball with her sister Elizabeth who stays at home. The set is a glorious Georgian room, proportioned well and decorated in white and, as the rather grand Osbornes and their party arrive, panels open to reveal and frame each person as they are introduced. The widowed Lady Osborne (Jane Booker) is especially regal with her hair piled high and grand frock and finery; her daughter Miss Osborne (Cat White) is very pretty.
The next day, Tom Musgrave and Lord Osborne call on Emma and we see Lord Osborne fall over his words. A day later Emma's brother Robert Watson (Sam Alexander) and his obnoxious, fussy wife Mrs Robert (a great comic performance from Sophie Duval) and another Watson sister Margaret (Rhianna McGreevy) all arrive from Croydon (much laughter from the audience as anyone describes the high society of Croydon, now an ugly London suburb.)
While the enlarged Watson family are there, Lord Osborne calls and wishes to speak to Emma and they are left alone by the avaricious relatives.
Lord Osborne proposes somewhat clumsily and unexpectedly to Emma and a maid (Louise Ford), quietly dusting a table in the corner is listening and, as Emma accepts, in a meta theatrical coup, the maid interrupts and tells her to make him wait for an answer. It is a clever intervention and starts witty riffs as the family question where this maid came from and who her employer is.
Like the NOT pagination errors in John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman, questions are raised as to how Jane Austen might have continued her unfinished novel based on notes she left, what she told her sister and some of the authors who have attempted to finish the fragments of The Watsons. Democracy too is served in this witty development of plot and character which I will not now spoil.
The second act opens with a blank page of a set and a stream of imagination is let loose. Anachronisms and aphorisms fire off and there is delightful laughter. They allude to the Pirandello play Six Characters in Search of an Author.
Samuel West directs and the performances are outstanding. I particularly liked Louise Ford whose character has to think on her feet. The costumes are a treat and this play surely must transfer to the West End as Laura Wade's last comedy Home I'm Darling and the earlier Posh did.
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Written by Laura Wade
Directed by Sam West
Starring: Grace Molony, Paksie Vernon, Brianna McGreevy, Sam Alexander, Sophie Duval, Laurence Ubong Williamson, Joe Bannister, Jane Booker, Cat White, Tim Delap, Louise Ford, Sonny Fowler, Teddy Probets, Isaac Forward.
With: John Wilson Goddard, Sally Bankes, Elaine Claxton, Elander Moore, Antony Hampton, Nicholas Southcott, Jacob Kat
Design: Ben Stones
Lighting Design: Richard Howell
Sound Designer: Gregory Clarke
Movement: Mike Ashcroft
Fight Director: Richard Leggett
Music: Isobel Waller-Bridge
Running time: Two hours 15 minutes with an interval
Box Office: 020 7378 1713
Booking to 16th November 2019
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 1st October 2019 performance at The Menier Chocolate Factory, 53 Southwark Street, London SE1 1RU (Tube/Rail: London Bridge)
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