If you came to see The Watsons expecting a straightforward development of an unfinished Austen novel, you’d have a surprise in store. Lots of surprises in fact because every time you think you know where Emma Wade’s new play is heading, she second guesses you and it takes another turn. In fact the fun really only starts with a sequence of multiple possibilities in the final mash-up. Wade’s play, directed with precision by Sam West is irreverent at all times whilst remaining a heartfelt homage to Austen and a call to writer’s and artists everywhere.

Emma Watson is a clever and attractive young woman who has just returned home to her family after growing up with her rich aunt. Much to the disapproval of her family, Emma has been sent back without a penny to her name after her aunt selfishly decided to re-marry. In order to escape the monotony of her family life, Emma determines to marry immediately but the choice between the earnest Vicar, vain Tom Musgrave and rich Lord Osborne with his awkward ways… well, rich Lord Osborne it’ll have to be. That is until a mysterious maid appears and turns out to be Laura Wade – the author, trying to work out what the characters should do next given that Austen abandoned the novel unfinished back in 1805.

I should give a meta-theatrical warning here. Having written herself into the play, the author is soon struggling for power with her cast, ‘You’re a character, not a person!’ This play is more meta than Pirandello’s ‘Six Characters in Search of an Author’. Crammed onto the small Mernier Chocolate Factory stage are 16 actors with no desire to have an author at all. Silly one minute and self-consciously philosophical the next, there is a pleasantly post-modern feeling that everyone wants to be free.

The Watsons played to critical acclaim at Chichester Festival Theatre in 2018 and much of the original cast remain. Grace Molony is a suitably feiste heroine in the Austen mould and Jane Booker’s imperious Lady Osborne is a delight. Having escaped the standard Austen endings, Lady Osborne turns out to be our alternative romantic hero, falling in love with the very well read maid. Even if meta-theare isn’t your thing, the delight in the endless possibilities of the creative process is hard to resist.