Jane Austen plus Doctor Who

A play based on the unfinished The Watsons has a familiar setting but takes a turn into existential crisis

Theatre
Laura meets Emma in “The Watsons” (©Manuel Harlan)

Jane Austen published only six novels before her untimely death, all of which have been adapted for screen and stage many times over. We’ve seen endless contemporary spin-offs, as well, from Clueless to Bridget Jones’s Diary. But Austen also left behind several unfinished stories, leaving an opportunity for future writers to come up with their own endings. The two most recent examples are Sanditon, adapted by Andrew Davies for ITV and The Watsons by Laura Wade, which has opened on stage at the Menier Chocolate Factory and runs until November 16. The latter is considerably more successful than the ITV series, compared by critics to a Regency version of Love Island.

The Watsons, which premiered at the Chichester Festival Theatre, unfolds in a very familiar Austen setting. The spirited heroine, Emma, is the youngest daughter of an impoverished clergyman. She was sent off at an early age to be raised by a rich aunt who has re-married and disposed of her. Now aged 19, she’s returned almost like a stranger to the family home where her father is on his deathbed. It’s quickly established that Emma and her sisters must get married asap. Once their father dies, they will no longer have a roof over their heads and will be forced to move in with their boorish brother and his dreadful, social- climbing wife.

The play opens with Emma at home getting ready for a dance at the Assembly room. It will be her first introduction to local society. The party guests arrive through multiple doors at the back of the stage transforming the drawing room into a dance floor. They include the wealthy merchant class, a trio of attractive army officers, the local clergy and finally the Osbornes, the grandest family in town, who are titled and live in a castle. By the end of the evening, Emma has three possible suitors: a handsome cad, an earnest vicar, and a wealthy but ill-mannered aristocrat. The big question for anyone attempting to finish Jane Austen’s story is: which one will Emma choose?

By her own admission, Laura Wade—who wrote Posh, the play about the Cameron and Johnson generation’s jolly japes at Oxford with the Bullingdon Club—spent almost a decade trying to adapt and complete The Watsons. On more than one occasion the manuscript was consigned to the proverbial desk drawer before being taken out and re-written, again and again. It was worth the wait: the result is a faultless piece of comic writing, perfectly pitched, each line of dialogue smoothed and polished like a gemstone.

The 19-strong cast is deftly directed by Samuel West, who happens to be the playwright’s husband. The play manages to transition between a number of different styles—from drawing room drama to bedroom farce and Brechtian alienation techniques—without any awkward moments. Like an automatic car: you are not aware of the gears changing.

The dilemma of “what will Emma do next?” is solved by the writer making herself a character in her own play, a sort of Doctor Who-like time-traveller in 18th-century England. Dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, Laura tries to explain to the assembled ladies in bonnets that they have been created out of the imagination of a certain Jane Austen and by way of proof pulls out a £10 note from her pocket with the novelist’s portrait on it.

The revelation that she is not real but a character leads Emma into an existential crisis with endless comic possibilities. I was reminded of Jim Carrey’s character in the satirical, sci-fi film, The Truman Show, who discovers that his entire life is a sham and he is in fact the unsuspecting star of a reality TV show. Laura, the playwright character, makes reference to Pirandello’s absurdist comedy Six Characters in Search of an Author, in which six characters storm in from the back of the stage demanding to see the author who has left them “unfinished”.

Laura states that her mission in The Watsons is to rescue Austen’s characters from a perpetual literary limbo. Unfortunately, the characters don’t want to be dictated to by the author and start demanding their rights. They have a lively debate about the nature of society and what it means to be human, referencing Hobbes’s “state of nature” and Rousseau’s social contract, arguments that would have been familiar to an educated person in Austen’s era.

Wade displays a Stoppardian quality in her ability to play on words, to parody and to create a convincing intellectual hinterland. She is also extremely funny. During the interval I reflected to my companion that The Watsons provided a welcome diversion to the endless debate about Brexit. My analysis proved a little premature, as in the second act the characters demand “to take back control” from the author, causing a huge roar of laughter. The Watsons, notable for its fidelity to the original text, will appeal to a general audience as well as devoted Austen fans. If it doesn’t get a successful West End transfer and a nationwide tour, I’ll eat my bonnet.