In Review

The Watsons review: jumping into Jane Austen

It’s hard to write like Jane Austen. It’s even harder to put your own stamp on her work without enraging at least half of the population. These are the kinds of worries that Laura Wade (Home, I’m Darling­, and Posh) started out with when she decided she would attempt to complete The Watsons, a novel Austen abandoned around 1805, 12 years before her death.

In the 80 pages of the book that exist, we are introduced to a host of colourful characters, and just about get a sense of what motivates them, before we are cut off. The only glimpse we have into the plans Austen originally had for Emma Watson and her family comes from some notes about what she had told her sister.

According to Austen’s unfinished novel, Emma, having been plucked out of her modest family home as a child and raised by a wealthy aunt, has now been returned to a place she barely knows, and finds herself the talk of the town. Surrounded by potential suitors – the flirty “cat”, the charming vicar and the awkward, but very wealthy duke – she struggles to figure out what she wants for her future, and what she is willing to sacrifice.

But here’s the theatrical twist. Wade, having discovered that finding a happy ending for Emma might be harder than it looks, decides to go in another direction. She enters the adaptation herself, as a character, and tries to figure out what to do with the others – even as they work against her, desperate to control their own fate. It’s an unusual and interesting meditation on what it means to be a character or an archetype, and what it is to be free.

Grace Molony is just right as the naive and somewhat spoiled, but curiously likable, heroine. Wade's character, played by Louise Ford, is charmingly relatable, and fits into the story surprisingly well. The staging also succeeds in making what could have been a confusing concept remarkably clear; a quick flash of the lights signals when the thread of the original story has been broken, and there is a physical border around the room in which the scene is set, out of which Laura suddenly steps.

Wade, along with her director and partner Samuel West, has created a thoughtful, comfortably flowing and - most importantly - funny piece from a fascinating snippet of Austen. It’s just a shame that, towards the end of the play, she tries to draw too many conclusions from her meandering attempts to make sense of the story. It comes off as a little trite to imagine that Austen abandoned these characters in order to give them some philosophically satisfying form of freedom, rather than tie them down with an ending. Having settled on the fact that finishing this story is too difficult, it’s ironic that it is Wade’s attempt to do just that that eventually trips her up.

The Watsons will be showing at the Menier Chocolate Factory until 16 November

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