In the latest look at a show that should have opened this week but could not because of the coronavirus lockdown, Lyn Gardner talks to director Samuel West about the cancellation of the West End transfer of his partner Laura Wade’s Jane Austen comedy. She also looks at Madonna’s UK stage debut in a show that opened this week in 2002
What is it?
Due to open at the Harold Pinter this week and run until September 26, The Watsons is a comedy by Laura Wade. It was inspired by an unfinished Jane Austen novel about teenage heroine Emma Watson, who has been cut off by her wealthy aunt and is in need of a quick and advantageous marriage. The show had a circuitous journey to the West End, delighting audiences and critics at the Minerva in Chichester in late 2018, before transferring to London’s Menier Chocolate Factory in November last year.
“It’s not a Sanditon-style refinishing of Austen’s novel,” says the show’s director Samuel West, who also happens to be Wade’s partner, “but is much more like Pirandello. The first 25 minutes are a classy Jane Austen adaptation and then the writer, a character called Laura, appears on stage and drives a truck through the whole thing. It’s joyous both for Janeites and everyone else. I’ve never been so proud of a show. Laura first began writing it 12 years ago, but couldn’t finish it. Then she realised that the problem was that it didn’t have an antagonist, so she put herself in it and it took off from there.”
West admits that he and Wade were initially nervous about living and working together. “But we loved spending more time together.” He pauses: “Although we never imagined we’d now be spending quite as much time together as we are now in lockdown.”
Who was involved?
Besides Wade and West, the creative team included designer Ben Stones, with Richard Howell on lighting design, Gregory Clarke on sound design, movement direction by Mike Ashcroft and music by Isobel Waller-Bridge. The Stage Debut Award winner Grace Molony was to play Emma Watson and the cast included Sam Alexander, Sally Bankes, Jane Booker, Elaine Claxton, Ralph Davis, Tim Delap, Sophie Duval, Louise Ford, John Wilson Goddard, Rhianna McGreevy, Elander Moore, Paksie Vernon and Cat White.
West says: “Ninety percent of the cast has been the same all the way through, which I think reflects the love everyone has for the show. I feel sad for them because they have already done two productions of the show for almost no money, and they were getting their chance of a West End run and it’s been snatched away. They have stayed with this show and they have such collective joy and pride in it. Those are things that are important, but which never appear on a balance sheet.”
How far did they get?
“In February we spent a very happy day in the Harold Pinter checking out the sight lines so that designer Ben Stones could engineer the set to fit. We were working on the education pack. Of course, theatres closing was the only sensible course of action – I’d been begging my dad [actor Timothy West] to stop going to the theatre before the shutdown.
The first day of rehearsals was due to be April 20, but because it was a 20-week run, initially we hoped that maybe we would salvage some of it. But it wasn’t to be.”
What is West doing during the shutdown?
“I’ve been curating and recording #PandemicPoems every day in a hut in my garden. They are like specks of dust on the Pantheon considering everything that has been lost, but it feels like something I can do.”
West says that he and Wade, who live in London with their two small children, are in a fortunate position and are solvent, but he’s acutely aware that is not the position of many in the industry.
“The workforce is suffering and that’s why we need to get up and running as soon as it is feasible. In the meantime the industry needs support, and when we do reopen it can’t play it staid and safe. We must keep pointing to our successes and remember that nobody saw Les Misérables or War Horse coming. None of us know what the next big success will be.”
Will The Watsons be rescheduled?
“I believe that there is justice in the universe and it will get another life. The producers David Babani and Sonia Friedman are making all the right noises. But, of course, at the moment nobody knows if the Harold Pinter will even be available. Our advantage is that The Watsons can come out of the box really fast. We only need two weeks – and audiences will need some laughter and joy in their lives.”
The Watsons was due to open at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London on May 18, running until September 2
Up for Grabs was a flaccid satire on money and the art market by Australian playwright David Williamson. It would have been banished from memory as soon as the final curtain fell if it were not for the fact that it starred Madonna in her one and only West End appearance.
Playing Loren – an art dealer desperately trying to inflate the price of a Jackson Pollock painting – Madonna was following in the footsteps of Nicole Kidman and Gwyneth Paltrow, who both made successful UK stage debuts. In the Daily Telegraph, Charles Spencer observed that “it’s hard to imagine how any producer will be able to top the lure of Madonna”.
So, it was a shame that while it was a huge occasion for the West End – selling out in minutes with tickets appearing on the black market for the then-princely sum of £500 – Up for Grabs wasn’t a very good play and Madonna didn’t make it any better. Feeble of voice and lacking in stage presence, “she demonstrates the difference between acting and doing things on stage”, according to John Peter in the Sunday Times, while in the Independent Paul Taylor declared: “On occasion, you feel the car in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang acts less mechanically.”
Madonna has not been back, but no doubt some canny producer will be eyeing up the possibility of Taylor Swift giving her Lady Macbeth in a bid to boost audiences post-pandemic.