Even if you’re up to speed with the twist in Laura Wade’s ‘The Watsons’ – and carry on reading for maybe five more seconds and you will be – there is something totally irresistible about the moment when an awkward-looking maid suddenly blurts out the words ‘these are not the droids you’re looking for’ and limply waves a hand at Grace Molony’s baffled Jane Austen heroine Emma Watson.
Austen never finished ‘The Watsons’, the story of a penniless but witty young woman abruptly left to fend for herself in the bearpit of Surrey society. After three chapters, an enticing selection of suitors are on the horizon – an awkward lord, a decent clergyman, a caddish cad – but for whatever reason Austen simply gave up on the story and left it abandoned.
Now, 200 years later, a playwright named Laura (Louise Ford) suddenly strides into ‘The Watsons’ disguised as a maid, determined to finish it.
From relatively straitlaced beginnings, Wade’s play becomes an increasingly out there meta satire, in which a writer’s blocked Laura and a series of extremely pissed-off Austen characters become bogged down in a sort of Mexican standoff over each other’s futures. It’s about the nature of authorship and authorial responsibility; it follows Wade’s last play ‘Home I’m Darling’ in taking a very long, very pointed look at our habit of fetishising regressive past societies; it’s also, at least for one very pointed scene, about Brexit, and the tyranny of democracy. Plus, it’s an odd couple buddy drama about the awkward playwright and sassy Austen heroine. Ford does a great job as the simultaneously egotistical and jittery Laura, while Maloney is wonderful as the pin-sharp, increasingly mutinous Emma, who becomes high on the possibilities of her new world.
It’s gleefully unruly and caustically self-mocking – not least the scene in which Laura weakly tries to explain how what she’s doing is different to Pirandello’s classic ‘Six Characters In Search of an Author’. But Sam West’s production is also fluffy and good-humored – subversive on the British addiction to period drama while being fundamentally sympathetic to it.
Austen purists might be horrified – but I suspect that as a rule they’ll enjoy a play that is clearly enamoured of the iconic writer, even as it prods and probes at our relationship with her and her world, which she satirised and which we have a tendency to fetishise.
There’s an edgier take on ‘The Watsons’ to be had, and I’d like to see it. But there’s probably not a more fun one. Which should stand it in good stead: with its 18-strong cast, wedged into the tiny 150-seat Menier for a relatively brief run, I’ve pretty sure I’ve never seen a show more blatantly gearing up for a leap to the West End, where it will hopefully cause all sorts of trouble.
This review is from the Menier Chocolate Factory in October 2019. ‘The Watsons’ transfers to the Harold Pinter Theatre in May 2020. Casting for the transfer is TBA.