Tuesday, 3 August 2021

REVIEW: Just So at the Watermill Theatre

Part of the joy of visiting the wonderful intimate Watermill Theatre near Newbury is to discover the cleverly designed innovative staging that fits into the tiny stage space of the venue. The creativity of a range of different shows such as Amelie, Christmas Carol, Bloodshot and Assassins is the hallmark of their productions. Covid has forced them out into their garden on temporary stages and it feels to me that this move has inhibited their creativity in staging the shows into a more one-dimensional production at the risk of disruption by the weather. It was a bold move to produce outdoor seasons in 2020 and 2021, perhaps even an essential move to produce necessary income and we must always celebrate their endeavour and ambition. 

The final production of their 2021 season is the musical Just So, written by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe in 1984, their first work and first staged at the Watermill in 1990. They have gone on to record many writing credits in West End, but this musical is a pleasantly melodic score with hints of Music Hall and pops with a dash of reggae and rap without being memorable or hummable. This Watermill revival is a semi-staged concert with another talented cast of actor-musicians but unlike last year’s concert of Camelot, the music is not good enough to sustain the format for the over two-hour running time.

The Just So Stories for Little Children were a 1902 collection of origin stories by the British author Rudyard Kipling which focused mainly on how animals obtained their distinctive features. The musical blends five of Rudyard Kipling’s stories to tell a tale of courage, friendship, and the power of an individual to make a difference; How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin, How the Leopard Got His Spots, How the Elephant Got His Trunk, The Singsong of Old Man Kangaroo and The Crab that Played with the Sea. It weaves the stories into a Genesis story of how the wise ‘Eldest Magician’ guides the Elephant Child through a journey to stop Pau Amma the Crab from causing terrible floods that put the other animals in danger. Yet in this staging there is little drama or choreography nor does a modern green message of saving the planet and wildlife get drawn out clearly.

The staging does not help. Half the audience tables are to either side of the temporary stage and the two large wooden pillars downstage, cluttered busy stage spaces with instruments, trunks and props, and lighting that blinds those seated stage left, and stage right, create sightline issues for all but those on the small forestage or sat in front of the stage. It makes it very difficult for the hardworking young cast to make an impact and engage the audience in the storytelling. When the Leopard acquires its spots or the Zebra its stripes, they miss the opportunity to add some magical style transformation but instead just add a scarf. 

The cast includes two professional debuts with Laura Andresen Guimaraes playing Zebra and Kemi Clarke as Leopard: both playing Clarinet and Saxophone. They both showed plenty of promise when they got into the spotlight. Nathanael Campbell looks the part as the Eldest Magician. Alexander Bean with his deep rich voice is the Rhino and on percussion. Peter Mooney adds a rare bit of comedy as Kangaroo. Emma Jane Morton, who shone in the Watermill’s Sweet Charity in 2018 returns as Giraffe. The story is driven along by Eleanor Kane as the Elephant Child and Emma Lucia as Kolokolo Bird (both on guitar) who lead the adventure to find the Limpopo river. The whole cast is under the Musical Direction of Dan De Cruz on the keyboard and has fun as the Parsee man and Jaguar. 

Together they create a good ensemble sound. But the material feels inconsequential and drawn out. I can imagine it touring primary schools for an hour of music and storytelling and engaging young children but the production staging, limited choreography and absence of magic or creativity in the direction failed to animate the storytelling enough to match this wonderful venue’s past successes.

Review by Nick Wayne 

Rating: ★★

Seat: Table 35 | Price of Ticket: £25

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