REVIEW: The Watsons, Minerva Theatre, until December 1.
The 2018 Chichester Festival Theatre season ends on a glorious high with The Watsons, a piece which is smart, hugely inventive and deliciously good fun.
The Watsons was the book which for reasons nobody really knows Jane Austen never completed. Instead, she left her characters in the lurch – which is where playwright Laura Wade comes to their rescue. Or maybe not…
Things proceed in conventionally Austen manner to start with, as the penniless Emma (Grace Molony) is lined up for a marriage of monetary convenience with the embarrassingly-awkward Lord Osborne (Joe Bannister) – the point at which the playwright wades in to deflect her from a poor emotional choice.
Suddenly we are behind the scenes as Laura tries to show who’s really pulling everyone’s strings. The scene is brilliantly done in which she breaks it to Emma that she, Emma, is actually a character in an unfinished book which she, Laura, has decided to bring to a conclusion.
But it’s not as simple as that and before long, the characters are quibbling with the course Laura’s plotting for them. Not long after that, she’s got a full-scale revolt on her hands.
Louise Ford is outstanding as Laura, playing her with a beautiful mix of calmness and authority shading into exasperation and complete despair – and that’s the joy of the real-life Laura’s play: the characterisation is an absolute delight throughout, from the dullard Lord to the twinkling flirt Tom Musgrave (Laurence Ubong Williams), from the youngster Leonardo Dickens as Charles Howard to the wonderfully-expressive Sophie Duval as Mrs Robert.
Put them all together, and the whole thing is a hoot once you get past its deliberately sedate start. Thereafter it’s all a fabulous exploration of writerly omnipotence versus the characters’ bid for self-determination – a bid which veers wildly out of control. Everyone is sent up in a night full of laughs, one which rightly remembers that the very best theatre is above all entertaining.
Director Samuel West masterminds it all very nicely – though he might just sit on the lower right-hand side for a second half and see the extent to which we are looking at backs of heads... Otherwise, it’s a great end to the season.