Tuesday, 26 June 2018

REVIEW: Jerusalem at the Watermill, Newbury

If you missed Jez Butterworth’s wonderful play Jerusalem in its 2009 West End run then hurry along to the Watermill Newbury for this excellent revival which is on until 21stJuly. The delightful theatre offers a perfect setting for the fictional village of Flintock , which is only a 40 minute drive from the Village of Pewsey from where Butterworth drew inspiration. The council of Kennet and Avon as the antagonists of the play keep it set nearby. It is a picture of isolated rural village and as one character says, the villagers’ don’t go “east of Wootton Basset”. The auditorium and foyer are decked out for the village May Day festival in flowers, fairy lights and bunting to create this idyllic scene.

At the centre of this play is Johnny “Rooster” Byron a drunken drug dealer who has lived in Rooster’s wood for years and is a magnet for the waifs and strays of the village. He is an intriguing character repellent and charming almost at the same time. A cross between the drunken philanderer Falstaff , the Pied Piper leading the village youths astray and Fagin , a loveable rogue trading off others weaknesses. But there are also hints of Henry V at Agincourt, St George protecting a threatened maiden and King Arthur telling tales of past glories at his round table. This complex character is brilliantly played by Jasper Britton from the moment we first meet him refreshing himself after a long night by dipping his head into the toilet and flicking the water over the front row, to his mesmeric bloodied final rant he is on stage virtually the whole time and gives a spell binding performance. He holds the audience attention in his glorious fantastical story telling of Summers of Love, Babies with born with bullets in their mouths, daredevil stunts, Girls Aloud fantasy and Giants who built Stonehenge yet he touches them too in his relationship with the young Marky and his mother Dawn (Natalie Walter).

Rooster holds court outside his dilapidated caravan in amongst the junk and beneath the trees: an excellent set design by Frankie Bradshaw that makes the most of the small space. Here we meet his disciples, followers and customers, a curious mixture of degenerates and oddballs. Ginger (Peter Caulfield with very bright dyed hair!) is older and has remained loyal to Rooster for a generation .He is a dreamer but knows when Rooster’s exaggerated tales have gone too far. He is hilarious when tripping on one of the substances supplied by his friend. The Professor (Richard Evans) too is of an older generation who seems to have stumbled bewildered into the group but keeps returning for more! Another occasional visitor is Wesley, Robert Finch, the local landlord who finally is forced to ban Rooster after a fracas but seems to secretly yearn for his freedom and occasional supply of drugs. Dressed as a Morris dancer we see his humiliation and despair. The young villagers easily develop individual characterisations but provide ensemble support to Johnny.

As the six o’clock deadline imposed by the F99 eviction notice, the threat level
mounts and Troy Whitworth (Adam Burton) adds dark evil tension that changes the mood and undermines Johnny’s resistance. His fifteen year old daughter Phaedra, (Nenda Neurer) who seems to be trying to hide from her father’s influence opens the show singing the hymn Jerusalem the words of which “And was Jerusalem builded here Among these dark Satanic Mills?” seem to infer we should side with the rural traveller rather than the NIMBYism of authorities and residents.

This is not a show for those easily offended by the language and it always surprises me that the use of F and C swear words gets such easy laughs and there are some odd passages like the overlong game of the Genus edition trivia questions but Lisa Blair as director has produced a wonderful enjoyable production with a towering central performance from Jasper Britton.

Review by Nick Wayne

Rating: ★★★★★

Seat: Stalls D | Price of Ticket: £26.50
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