REVIEW: Lights and Bushels presents another sparkling Jane Austen adaptation

The Watsons
The Watsons

The Watsons, Lights and Bushels, Arun House, Horsham, Thursday, June 29

Two years after their previous Jane Austen show, Lights and 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’s 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 (once 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 My 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 and 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.

To find out more about Lights and Bushels visit lightsandbushels.jimdo.com.

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