Lights & Bushels marked the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen's death by premiering Kathryn Attwood's comic adaptation of Austen's early unfinished novel The Watsons. As with Lady Susan, this production took place in the open air at Arun House in Horsham on (mostly) warm, dry, summer evenings in June/July 2017.
Reviews of The Watsons
Lawrence Smith, Entertainment Reporter and Reviewer, West Sussex County Times:
Two years after their previous Jane Austen show, Lights & Bushels Theatre Company are back with a brand new adaptation of one of the novelist’s other stories. The Watsons, like 2015’s Lady Susan, has been completed for the stage by Kathryn Attwood, with performances taking place at Arun House in the venue’s beautiful garden.
The play, which is based on an unfinished novel by Austen, is about a young woman called Emma Watson (yes, really) who was destined to be a wealthy heiress until the rich aunt who raised her married a poor army officer. When the play begins, Emma is back with her penniless and rather dysfunctional birth family, but there seem to be a few eligible bachelors who might rescue her and her siblings.
Lights and Bushels’ adaptation is a lighthearted and amusing take on what could have a been a rather stuffy and tedious drama. However, it’s a somewhat difficult show to get into at first. Many of the opening scenes exist to establish a world of rigid manners while letting the audience know about all the different families. Many character interactions are noticeably formal too, with people’s true emotions kept in check under the surface. However, this sober mood changes when the Watsons are together in private. There’s gossip, merriment and sometimes brutal honesty, which gives the audience something more human to relate to. It’s not as subversive a tale as Lady Susan (the main character of this play is in no way manipulative), but The Watsons gradually becomes a surprising, lively and fun production. The script is sharp and witty and contains some modern flourishes (one character actually says ‘duh’) that help breathe new life into the 19th century source material.
The actors put in memorable performances too. Alicia Marson, one of the many HAODS regulars in this show, is admirably level-headed as Emma, remaining cautious but not overly cynical about the men competing for her attention. Ted Gooda (Elizabeth Watson) and Amy Tester (Margaret Watson) are similarly endearing as her two sisters. But they play characters who are more inclined to indulge in silly daydreams. This leads to one of the play’s funniest moments when Margaret is devastated to realise that the man of her dreams isn’t what she thought he was. Tom Hounsham is strong as the smarmy (and occasionally slimy) Tom Musgrave while Sam Taylor gets some solid laughs as his clueless friend Charles Osborne. Lord Osborne’s half-hearted attempt at proposing to Emma is a definite highlight of this show. Gill Sutton gets a good response as the Watsons’ nosy nanny, and Barry Syder, playing Robert Watson, earns a few scandalised chuckles with Robert’s chauvinistic observations about women. His grumpy outlook is no match for the curmudgeonly old Mr Watson though, played by Peter Burton. Watson’s constantly complaining about his old age and infirmity, but gives the impression that it’s all a bit of an act. After all, his remedies for his ailments all seem to involve being left alone with his dinner. Denise Robinson (playing Isabella Osborne), Maria Stack (Lady Osborne), Lisa Falkner (Jane Watson) and Stephen Rowland (Mr Smith) do a good job in this play too, despite their limited time onstage.
However, it’s arguably Gus Quintero Fryatt as the clergyman Mr Howard who has the biggest impact with a smaller part. Polite, nervous and easily flustered, it’s clear that Mr Howard is very attracted to Emma and he makes the audience root for the relationship to happen even when deceitful characters try to block it. Overall, The Watsons is another engaging and cheerful take on Jane Austen’s work from Lights & Bushels. This company may be relatively new on the West Sussex am-dram scene, but their logo has quickly become recognised as a stamp of quality. I’m looking forward to seeing what they come up with next.
Jose Harrison, NODA Representative:
Last night I went to see “The Watsons” with my son. Whilst nursing a broken arm I am limited in my ability to type and so asked him for his thoughts on the evening. He wrote the following:
“Marriage has nothing to do with falling in love” declares Robert Watson two thirds of the way through Act 1. This line, delivered with beautiful simplicity and lovely timing is typical of both Jane Austen and the humour of The Watsons written and directed by Kathryn Attwood. The Watsons is an original production by Lights and Bushels that uses the 18,000 words of Jane Austen’s unfinished novel as its source and takes us straight into Ms Austen’s regency world. Ms Austen provides the framework but it is this exceptional company of players and their writer that brings thirteen individuals and beautifully differentiated characters to life.
The action, as with much of Jane Austen’s other writings, takes us through and revolves around middle class Surrey, the manners, money and possible marriage opportunities of the Watson family. Emma Watson, the chief protagonist has recently returned home to her family having been raised by a rich aunt. She is now disinherited and therefore encouraged to make an advantageous marriage, preferably as soon as decorum will allow. She is surrounded by her brother and his social climbing wife, her unmarried sisters who tend to swoon at any passing member of the male sex, a father desperate for a peaceful life, and the nosiest nanny in the world. The Watson family is counterpointed by any array of equally interesting characters including the devilishly handsome Tom Musgrave (played by Tom Hounsham with a sneer to match), the reserved and righteous Mr Howard (Gus Quintero Fryatt in a performance of great physical restraint) and Lord Charles Osbourne (Sam Taylor subtly demonstrating his lack of interest in all things female…and his perhaps greater interest in all things male).
Special mention must be made of Alicia Marson in the central role of Emma Watson. She gives a highly polished performance in perhaps the hardest role to play. Whilst being surrounded by such exaggerated characters, all playing their role with gusto she holds the stage and provides a very believable counterpoint of common sense.
She never tries to dominate her many and varied scenes and comes across as a sensible rational voice, allowing comic turns and lines to be played around her. The comedy is in many cases subtle but occasionally hysterical. Emma’s two sisters, played by Ted Gooda and Amy Tester have a plethora of humorous lines and give them out with relish in their search for a good marriage as well.
The entire cast is word perfect in a piece that focuses on language. Timing is real, without fearing silence on the stage when appropriate. The play was performed in an open air garden with minimal staging, lighting and no amplification. The entire cast projected their voices in a highly professional manner and every word could be heard. The rest of the setting was simple and understated with minimal set and scenery. This allowed, as it should, the focus to remain on the players and the action. Costumes were wonderful and regency correct in every way, again the work of the all-round talented Kathryn Attwood.
This production was sold out, and my only criticism is that this deserved a wider audience than this garden setting and small space allowed. Should the opportunity for this to be reprised to a larger audience then I hope the company will take it.
I agree with my son’s thoughts and therefore would like them to stand for the record whilst adding that I also loved Gill Sutton’s turn as the nosy nanny. Thank you Lights and Bushels for entertaining us so regally.