From beginning to end, The Watsons pays homage to Jane Austen. Laura Wade’s experimentally metatheatrical play engages Austen’s wit, showcases the wonderful vibrance of her characters, and presents a heroine determined to hold her own. But Wade also adds her own touch, merging the ridiculous and the comically euphemistic with the intellectual and philosophical. Her play stretches the boundaries of our thinking about actors, characters and reality, and it makes us laugh – only I’m not sure it does either of these things with enough clarity or precision.
At the beginning we find ourselves laughing at Elizabeth’s (Paksie Vernon) cynicism, Margaret’s (Rhianna McGreevey) blatant desperation for a husband and Mr Howard’s (Tim Delap) clerical severity. This is only partly Austen’s humour. We’re laughing from our modern perspective at the folly of the concerns of this 18th century society. I feel constantly uncertain: should we be laughing at this, or should we be immersing ourselves in the reality of the social lives of these characters? Should we go along with their problems and their happiness, even if they seem unfounded, petty and ridiculous to us?
Then comes the Big Twist. Wade takes over from Austen, and the humour reaches fever-pitch. Jane Booker as Lady Osborne is roaringly funny as she flattens Laura with question after question: her comic timing is exquisite. Laurence Ubong Williams as Tom Musgrave also deserves a mention: his glee at playing the rascal is evident; his flirtatious energy is wincingly funny. But the comedy doesn’t flow quite perfectly. There are peaks and troughs – and too many lines which jar the rhythm or flatten the comedy. Watching this play is like being in a car with a learner driver – stalling, suddenly accelerating, in an unpredictable pattern which is more disjointed than it is exciting.
If these comic parts at times fail to nail the humour, some of the serious emotional power of the later sections also falls short. The declared love affair between Lady Osborne and Nanny (Sally Bankes) is beautiful both in concept and execution, and the subtlety of their acting really makes the audience think about the stifled love lives of Austen’s society. Laura’s (Louise Ford) emotional outburst is much less convincing. Ford plays the writer’s character with an earnestness which is at first wonderfully incongruous, standing out from these polished 19th century characters, but which quickly reveals its lack of layers. There is potential in her part and in her acting, but she needs to smooth over the shifts in tone and mood; she needs to act more, rather than acting as a writer who is not acting. Even if this is a comment on the behind-the-scenes of constructing a play and characters, it is on a stage and we are a present audience.
The Watsons has a lot of energy, and an exciting desire to do and be something new. Sometimes the intention is more than the lines can hold, however, and despite some wonderful performances, the emotions too often feel strained, confused, and all out of order. It can be entertaining (the smoothness of scene transitions, Stones’s cleverly-designed, spatially-efficient set which incorporates hidden doors and raised platforms, and the white aesthetic which is waiting for the author and characters to colour it are all enjoyably satisfying to watch at work) but it’s wit and inventiveness tend to get a little lost in uncertain humour and unfocused emotion.
The Watsons is playing at Menier Chocolate Factory until 16 November. For more information and tickets, visit the Menier Chocolate Factory website.