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The Watsons review at Minerva Theatre, Chichester – ‘inventive adaptation of Austen’s unfinished novel’

Grace Molony and Louise Ford in The Watsons at Minerva Theatre, Chichester. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Jane Austen began writing The Watsons in 1804, only to abandon it the following year. No one knows why she stopped working on it, although there’s speculation the novel’s plot – where the genteel heroine is at risk of poverty if she doesn’t marry quick following the death of her father – contained too many parallels with Austen’s own situation to make penning it a pleasure.

Laura Wade’s approach to completing the unfinished manuscript is every bit as clever, witty and resourceful as an Austen heroine presented with a problem to solve and limited material to call upon.

Emma Watson (Grace Molony) arrives as a curiosity in her long-departed hometown. Thrust from the care of her rich relations, Emma’s only hope of securing a socially acceptable and financially secure future is to ensure wedding bells are ringing fast. The fly in the Regency ointment is that Emma must choose between marrying for love or marrying for money.

So far, so Austen. Samuel West directs these early scenes as a playful yet faithful homage to the original, with sickbed scenes and gossipy balls performed to Isobel Waller-Bridge’s gentle, head-bobbing score.

Wade then solves the ‘how to finish?’ problem by going meta. Writing herself into the story, initially disguised as a meddling servant, Laura (Louise Ford) starts by trying to explain to Emma her status as a work of fiction.

In reply, the whole cast turn on Laura, proposing various forms of populist revolution against the god or parent-like figure of the author.

As the down-on-her-luck lead Emma Watson, Grace Molony combines polished charm with rebellious frustration at both the women who wrote her. Joe Bannister is also very enjoyable to watch as the chronically awkward, tongue-tied Lord Osborne, as is Paksie Vernon as the long-suffering Elizabeth Watson, Emma’s older sister who is often treated to nothing more than a faceful of bonnet from the other characters.

The company of The Watsons at Minerva Theatre, Chichester. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Post-interval, Ben Stones’ set design of froufrou furniture bleaches white, like it’s been Farrow-and-Balled into modernity and is now shabby chic vintage rather than period-appropriate detail. Like much about this production, it’s an ingenious little twist that’s executed with restraint and subtlety.

Wade’s script notes the similarity between her play and Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author. It’s a self-aware comment, but also a self-effacing one that does a disservice to this new creation.

The Watsons is meta, yes, but it’s also a very moving reflection on authorship – particularly female authorship – the ego and selfishness of writers, motherhood, imposter syndrome, ageing and ambition.

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Laura Wade transforms Jane Austen’s unfinished novel into an expertly crafted reflection on writing fiction.