Imagine a riotously funny cross between the tenor of Emma Thompson’s film adaptation of “Sense and Sensibility” and the audacity of Amy Heckerling’s “Emma” revamp “Clueless” and you’re still only half-way to the ceaselessly surprising “The Watsons.” The glory of Laura Wade’s vivaciously theatrical take on this little-known Jane Austen fragment, now playing at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory, is that she celebrates its literary roots but is never enslaved by them. Instead, she pulls off the exhilarating trick of obeying both the letter and the spirit of Austen while, to the audience’s audible delight, joyously blowing expectations out of the water.
Having been brought up, for all of her nineteen years, away from home, spirited Emma Watson (perky yet poised Grace Molony) returns, with no prospects, to her ailing father, her spinster sister and the vigorous, if varied, expectations of surrounding nosy townsfolk. Assorted aunts, cousins, in-laws, officers, potential suitors and even the redoubtable servant are all eager to size her up. In other words, in pale, Empire-line gowns on Ben Stones’s bleached, paneled wood set, the characters are denizens of Austen country, the land of marriages and money, or lack thereof.
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With exposition wittily and notably swiftly dispatched — thanks in no small part to Samuel West’s deft direction — the stakes instantly rise with Emma’s immediate debut at the ball, which literally sorts out the men from boys. In seemingly no time at all, we are abreast of the situation with Emma’s potential assessed by the benign parson (Tim Delap), the cad (a dashing Laurence Ubong Williams) and the spectacularly dim Lord Osborne (the wonderfully constipated Joe Bannister), who is “the not remotely deformed present incumbent of Osborne Castle which has twenty bedrooms and a hothouse where they grow actual pineapples.”
The latter set of circumstances (the means, not the pineapples) swings it for Emma, who, although not yet fully conversant with her heart’s desire, certainly knows what her head makes of the matter. Bu she and we are in for a shock as, out of the blue, she is pulled up short by Wade herself, well, wading in via the character of Laura (Louise Ford), who turns out to be the author of Emma’s destiny since she is writing the remainder of the plot.
Written halfway through Austen’s career, “The Watsons” is famously unfinished. But far from following the recent convention of completing unfinished works and/or writing imitative sequels, Wade uses Laura to seize her satirical opportunity and entirely re-draw this drawing-room comedy.
Instead of mere completion, we are hurled into an investigation: What was it about Emma Watson that made Austen abandon her? What does it mean for her character? What does it actually mean to be a character? It’s a case of the more meta, the better.
Initially, these questions are not unlike Pirandello’s groundbreaking “Six Characters in Search of An Author,” from 1921, but that play never had the laugh count that Wade racks up. Emma is initially baffled, while everyone else is outraged. And the more Laura tries to explain, the more Austen’s formality and her characters are overtaken by frankly hilarious anarchy — so much so that audiences find themselves in the rare situation of having no idea what might happen but safe in the prospect of pure enjoyment.
It would spoil the fun to reveal the details of the postmodern philosophical games that Wade and West play — a sort of “Whose lines are these anyway?” — but the tone is never earnest. And with historical fiction always illustrative of the time in which it is written, Wade gets as much comic mileage out of satirizing contemporary political and theatrical ideas — as when Jane Booker’s incomparably imperious Lady Osborne declares, “I don’t think my character would do that” — as she does exposing nineteenth century morals and manners.
For all the fun and games of the plot twists as Laura and the characters battle it out, the closing image — an ideal collaboration between text, direction, light and sound — is the icing on the cake: an exquisite realization of the lasting power and potential of the original novels. To convey that theatrically is quite something.
The 19-strong cast means that anyone transferring the show will need deep pockets. But it is a truth universally acknowledged in the outstanding reviews for its Chichester regional premiere last year, and now at the Menier Chocolate Factory, that the West End is where this joyous confection undoubtedly belongs.