Jane Austen's The Watsons at Chichester Festival '˜pokes a finger in the eye of convention'

Review: The Watsons, adapted from the unfinished novel of Jane Austen, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, on until December 1

Friday, 9th November 2018, 9:59 am
Updated Monday, 12th November 2018, 8:50 pm
The Watsons is on in Chichester. Photo by Manuel Harlan
The Watsons is on in Chichester. Photo by Manuel Harlan

Oh my goodness - Lady Osborne has just run off to sea with the nanny after a passionate gay kiss; and the lovely Miss Emma Watson has decided that marriage to the local clergyman is a frightfully dull prospect.

And is that young Charles (Leonardo Dickens) abandoning his Georgian nursery and discovering the joys of Candy Crush on a mobile phone?

Like the British public who by a wafer thin majority snatched at the idea of self-determination in the Brexit referendum, Jane Austen’s precisely drawn characters are in rebellion against the established order.

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They have voted down the suggestion that another author tie up their lives as Austen might have envisaged and instead go on a wild and wickedly funny rampage of choosing what they would have preferred to do.

Like a great unfinished symphony, nothing teases and challenges future generations more than a work that its creator never quite completed.

Jane Austen abandoned The Watsons in 1805 after her father’s death.

It comprised a mere 18,000 words and five chapters - but it was already rich with characters and possibilities.

Laura Wade’s new stage adaption and conclusion of the book brings down the curtain on the Chichester Festival season for this year - and it does so with a resounding bang that would send Austen aficionados scuttling for their smelling salts.

What starts as a fairly predictable translation to stage of the opening fragments of the original quickly moves with surreal deftness to an unrestrained exploration of what might have been, melding past and present with moral defiance.

If there is a conclusion at all it is that Austen bequeathed her characters of Emma Watson (Grace Molony), Lady Osborne (Jane Booker) and their respective families the greatest gift of all - to forever be free of a pre-ordained ending chosen by someone else.

The whole romp is a little too self-indulgent in places. But it’s great fun too. The performances by Booker and Molony are utterly delicious. And there couldn’t be a better ending to a Festival which has never been afraid to strut its stuff and poke a finger in the eye of convention.