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Wednesday, 23 November 2022

REVIEW: Rapunzel at the Watermill Theatre

The story of Rapunzel, the beautiful woman with golden hair who is locked in a tower is best known as one of the Brothers Grimm’s 1812 fairy tales and for its famous line “let down your hair” to give access to her room. Annie Siddons has developed the story into a full-blown Christmas children's entertainment aimed at primary school kids but with a few elements for their parents too by giving an entire back story to the Prince who becomes Rapunzel’s suitor. In this version at the delightfully intimate Watermill Theatre near Newbury in Berkshire, we meet the Duchess (Miiya Alexandra) who has two sons, Paulo (Roddy Lynch), the ambitious evil brother and Patrizio (Loris Scarpa), her favourite son and chosen heir to the Kingdom. Rapunzel finds herself caught up in the battle between them.

The story has many dark elements with baby Rapunzel’s abandonment, her locking up alone for years, the blinding of Patrizio, Paulo chopping off his own finger and the burial of the finger as well as plenty of assaults and abuse, yet it is staged in such a delightfully comical and creative way that it hardly disturbs even the youngest in the audience and constantly amuses the adults. There are some elements of Pantomime added like the song sheet and audience interaction but generally, it is pitched as a joyous children’s show. Occasionally some adult comedy is shoehorned in like a sketch about inflation or the appointment of a Bunny as Chancellor and a special adviser, but they fall short of parody or satire and feel lame and unnecessary.

Tuesday, 4 January 2022

REVIEW: Cinderella at the Corn Exchange, Newbury

For their last performance of 2021, the Newbury production of Cinderella had to adjust with Jordon Benjamin stepping up from an Ensemble of two into the leading role of Prince Charming as the understudy for William Beckerleg but his confident stage presence covered any uncertainty over filing the role. Indeed, the whole cast looks like they are enjoying themselves in the knowledge that the creative team behind the show have developed an imaginative and fresh take on the familiar title and perhaps that there were only four more shows until the end of the run!

The script by Clare Prested, Adam Brown (who also directs) and Amanda Wilsher is full of clever fresh ideas that breathes new life into the story and dispenses with the Buttons character. This spreads the responsibility for the comedy to the rest of the cast and they rise to the challenge wonderfully. The Dandini character is elevated to the comical Deldini borrowing heavily from Only Fools and Horses and brilliantly incorporating the famous bar scene collapse. Billy Robert’s is excellent in the role of creating the chirpy East End chappie.

Wednesday, 20 October 2021

REVIEW: Brief Encounter at the Watermill Theatre

In April 2018 I saw Emma Rice’s stage adaption of the classic 1945 film Brief Encounter on its return to the Haymarket London and a year later The Watermill’s wonderful adaption of the acclaimed French film Amelie which has just recently completed its West End run. Both showed how you could take a strong romantic film and bring it to the stage with fresh energy without losing the cinematic feel. It was therefore fascinating to see how the Watermill evolved the Emma Rice adaption of the classic David Lean film to the tiny Newbury stage which had worked so well for Amelie. While it has retained much of the delightful charm, its attempts to replace the cinematic quality of the London Production with its own theatrical twists were less successful.

Gone are the ushers dressed in period costumes, the projected film for the cast to interact with and the flying fantasy sequence and in its place, there is the feel of another classic film to stage adaptation,39 Steps, with the cast spending quite long well-choreographed sequences moving props on and off the stage and making do with picture frames to depict train windows. Then they have added for the Watermill, which one cast member calls “the heart and home of actor-musicians”, a cast who play Noel Coward songs from the period to fill in between scenes. It makes it feel more episodic and while there is a fluidity of movement it makes a more disjointed production like a thirty’s cabaret at times. It is somewhat distracting to find a cast member with a violin tucked under their arm or dancing around the main characters while playing.

Friday, 2 July 2021

REVIEW: As You Like It at the Watermill Theatre

Live Theatre is back and the Watermill Newbury which has quietly worked away to keep its venue open whenever it could throughout the pandemic again stages an outdoor season, but you can sense the air of change as soon as you arrive. As you like it is a perfect play for the time and the location on the back lawn of the venue. The temporary stage fashioned from recycled sets is backed by an evergreen hedge and the “babbling brook” runs down to the old mill behind the audience at tables across the lawn. We are transported to an eco-friendly world of The Forest of Arden.

This updated version (by Yolanda Mercy) of Shakespeare’s 1599 comedy is set in the modern-day and sharply contrasts the corporate commercial world of the Court in the first 30 minutes with the joyous celebration of a group of eco-warriors camping out and camping up (especially Tom Sowinski as the old servant Adam) amongst the trees. As we settle in our seats, we see Orlando, in overalls and protective gloves, clearing away the plastic bags and debris from the stage before the court arrives. It is a dry unexciting opening in which neither the Duke nor his brother Oliver seems scheming or evil enough as Orlando and Rosalind are banished from the Court. Only in the wrestling match between Orlando and Charles (Jamie Satterthwaite), which is wonderfully choreographed by Anjali Mehra, does the action and tension rise.

Monday, 26 October 2020

REVIEW: Lone Flyer at the Watermill, Newbury

The Watermill continues its indoor reopening season with a revival of its 2001 play about the life and death of the amazing Amy Johnson, the first women to fly from Croydon to Darwin Australia in 19 days in May 1930. The venue continues to smoothly and efficiently handle the Covid pandemic restrictions artfully wrapping two thirds of its seating capacity in the theatre and allocating a table to each ticket purchase group for use before the show and at the interval. It creates a welcoming and safe feeling environment even if face coverings during the performances is a necessary irritation. However this production does not quite hit the extraordinary heights of the first play, Bloodshot, despite the excellent efforts of the Director Lucy Betts and the fine cast of Hannah Edwards as Amy and Benedict Salter as the rest of the thirty characters!  

The challenge is the structure of Ade Morris's play which intersperses a chronological retelling of the aviator's life story from her birth in Hull in 1903 to her death in 1941 mainly through exposition from Amy, with flash forwards to her final flight as a member of the World War II Air Transport Auxillary, and interactions with her husband Jim Mollison (from 1932 to 1938). At times it feels like an animated version of Wikipedia with some very detailed explanations of landings on her flights and then skipping over details of her health problems and very short episodic interactions with key characters in her life. It means we never really get sucked into the drama and emotions of her fascinating inspiring life while admiring her tenacity, bravery and single minded determination. 

Friday, 21 February 2020

REVIEW: A Midsummer Night Dream at the Watermill Theatre, Newbury

A Midsummers Night Dream is perhaps Shakespeare's best known and most accessible play and the famous lines pop up throughout any production. But its very popularity means anyone approaching producing the play seeks to find a different way of staging the show to differentiate it from what has gone before. Paul Hart's production returns to the Watermill after a run at the Wilton Music Hall and he sets it as a troupe of Victorian music hall musicians putting on the play on a bare stage with just a couple of stage cloths. He also follows the general trend for gender blind casting with a female Bottom and female Puck in an Ensemble cast of ten (5 males, 5 females) and adds 20th century music to freshen up the presentation played by actor musicians. It's a nice idea and for the most part works very well but occasionally the energy drops and then it feels laboured and overdone.

Victoria Blunt as Bottom (until 22 February when she is replaced by Emma Barclay who was so funny recently at The Watermill in One million tiny plays about Britain) steals the show with her joyous expressive face and high energy, she is able to make the most of the comic opportunities . She brings a fresh feel to her dreamy liaison with Titania as an ass (with a simple headdress and glorious buck teeth) and revels in her interruptions in the Mechanicals scenes. I have no doubt that Emma Barclay will be able to do the same.

Friday, 8 November 2019

REVIEW: Cyrano de Bergerac at the Watermill Theatre, Newbury

The Watermill Young Company's latest production is a charming and fun version of the story of the French poet and swordsman, Cyrano, based on the original play written in 1897 by Edmond Rostand in an adaption written in 2013 by Glyn Maxwell. It is great script full of modern witty lines but sticking closely to the plot of the original five act play , particularly in the first Act (which reflects the first three acts of the original). Oddly the shorter second act set in the siege of Arras and fifteen years later in a Covent seemed rather rushed and less well written than the excellent first act.

Simply set with an overhead walkway, single door and a cut out round window and with an excellent set of period costumes all designed by Cory Shipp, they create a good period feel and the different levels are well used. The critical scene, so memorably played by Steve Martin in the 1997 movie Roxanne, where Christian tries to woo Roxanne on a balcony using the words of Cyrano is very well done by the young cast. Director Seamus Allen provides strong direction getting the best from the ensemble cast who deliver the lines with confidence and clarity. There are nice flourishes like when they effectively stage Cyrano's defeat of 100 soldiers in choreographed movement in a lightening storm and the rousing chants of the cadets before battle.

Tuesday, 1 October 2019

REVIEW: Assassins at the Watermill Theatre, Newbury

Stephen Sondheim’s breadth of catalogue is astonishingly good from West side story and Gypsy in the fifties, Company, Follies and Sweeney Todd in the seventies and Into the woods and Sunday in the park in the eighties but this nineties musical Assassins is less well known. However, in this latest UK revival at the Watermill we can see it is every bit as good as its predecessors. It is a dark bleak comedy about the notorious assassins who killed or attempted to kill eight US Presidents. At first glance it feels an odd choice for a musical but at a time when US politics seems as divisive as ever and mass murders common place it seems a timely and sharp look at the American gun mentality and the failing American Dream.

The tone is set when we enter the delightfully intimate Watermill auditorium as Simon Kenny’s red and white striped set places us at an American Fairground shooting gallery and as the Proprietor (Joey Hickman who doubles up as the Assistant MD)introduces us to the historical assassins in “Everybody's Got The Right" to be happy, while handing out their chosen weapons. It has the feel of a vaudeville variety show with each Assassin having a distinctive musical style.

Tuesday, 30 July 2019

REVIEW: Kiss Me, Kate at the Watermill Theatre, Newbury

Kiss Me Kate is a musical that I have admired ever since seeing the 1987 Old Vic production directed by Adrian Noble and starring Nichola McAuliffe and Paul Jones as Lilli and Fred with the gangsters played by Emil Wolk and John Bardon. The show won two 1987 Olivier Award for Outstanding Performance of the Year in a Musical. So, it was with some anticipation I ventured down to the Watermill for the first ever actor/musician version of the show after seeing their four-star versions of Sweet Charity and Amelie.

Paul Hart again directs a cast of twelve actor musicians in the intimate Watermill Theatre with set design by Frankie Bradshaw (who did excellent sets for Jerusalem there and for Sweat at Donmar) but on this occasion they fall short of my expectations. The set is unimaginative, an old paint frame and a red front cloth to denote whether we are backstage or on stage in the production of the Taming of the Shrew and the direction seems to encourage overacting and rather obvious stagey laughs. When you are trying to play a bad actor, the character must convey belief that they are a good actor otherwise it just comes across as false and hammy.

Friday, 19 July 2019

REVIEW: Our Church at the Watermill Theatre, Newbury

The Watermill Theatre Artistic Director Paul Hart has commissioned this new play for this season's local regional tour and this interesting new play arrives at the home venue for a short run until July 20th. Our Church is written by Marietta Kirkbride based on a story she heard about a church committee grappling with how far to include a convicted sex offender into their congregation. She uses this basic idea to explore the alternative views of how people react to the situation.

On the one hand the perpetrator has paid the price for his offence by serving a prison sentence and losing his family and the Christian values suggest forgiveness and repentance should be accepted norms . On the other hand how would any of us react to that person if we had suffered a personal experience which had affected our own family lives. The play very successfully sets out the arguments on both sides creating sympathetic characters and a thought provoking situation that challenges the audience to question how they would react as we eavesdrop on the committee meeting. 

Director Nik Partridge gets the best from the cast of three in what is a relatively static situation around a table in the church hall and builds the tension in each act between the characters especially in the scene where Annie reveals her inner thoughts to Tom. However the final scenes are slightly hampered by the structure as one character is unable to move and the second character has to leave the stage several times and it felt that a third character was needed to assist the resolution.

Sunday, 18 November 2018

REVIEW: Robin Hood at the Watermill in Newbury

The Watermill Theatre is one of my most favourite theatres and Christmas time one of my favourite times to be in a theatre seeing young children getting their first experience of a live show. In the past two seasons the Watermill has presented Rufus Norris's fairy tale adaption of Sleeping Beauty and a wonderful adaption of The Borrowers which have been perfectly pitched at the Christmas audiences. This year they have turned to poet and novelist Laura Dockrill for a modern version of the legend of Robin Hood, in what feels like her first stage play. She has taken the original well known outlaws and written them as modern day scouts falling out with a female punk Robin Hood in the traditional battle with a bizarre manic Sheriff of Nottingham. Sadly it does not work and the cast have to put a lot of effort to get anything out of the clunky script.

Leander Deena as the Sheriff reminded me of a cross between Timmy Mallet's outrageous overacting still seen in pantomime and Basil Fawlty's over the top reaction to everything. He gets most of the original songs including "I've also fancied myself", "Nice guy", "Be my wife" and "Double day" and pitches them all with the same wide eyed energy. Curiously the lyrics seem to recognise the flaws in the show as the cast sing of a "stupid and pointless song", "I don't like this song", "I thought jokes were meant to be funny" and that "we will all be half asleep by the time we finish"! The best song is a country and western song "Friends" sung by Marion and Robin backed by a washboard and guitars.

Sunday, 30 September 2018

REVIEW: Trial By Laughter at Watermill, Newbury

There can be no more appropriate authors than Ian Hislop and Nick Newman to write this celebration of the forgotten role of William Hone in the defence of the freedom of speech in Britain which the Editor and Cartoonist of Private Eye enjoy today. Hone was subjected to three separate trials over three days in December 1817 for the use of parody of religious documents to mock the Crown and politicians of the day. Hislop has himself faced many libel cases as Editor and therefore both understands the importance of the cases and arguments and how it feels to be in the dock. You can imagine the excitement they must have felt when they discovered the story and were commissioned to continue their playwriting collaboration which started with Bunch of Amateurs and continued even more successfully with the excellent World War 1 story of Wipers Times.

They first wrote it as a one hour radio play for BBC Radio 4 and have now extended it into a two act play for the Watermill but the transfer from Radio to stage is not as successfully as we might have expected. The basic tale is wonderful material; a penniless but witty writer and publisher, Home and his collaborator and drinking partner cartoonist George Cruickshank regularly entertain crowds in shop windows with their work and he sells his Reformists Register, not for revolution or profits but to change the establishment. The targets of the day are the bloated and lascivious Prince Regent, the self interested politicians in both houses and the corrupt judicial system which protects the establishment. He becomes a campaigner for the case of Eliza Fenwick, the dumpling murderer hung for allegedly poisoning her employers although they neither actually died.

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).

Thursday, 22 March 2018

REVIEW: The Rivals at the Watermill Theatre, Newbury

I last saw Richard Sheridan's The Rivals in 1983 on the Olivier stage at the National Theatre with a sumptuous Bath Crescent set and a glorious cast which included Geraldine McEwan as Mrs Malaprop, Michael Horden as Sir Antony Absolute with Patrick Ryecart as his son Jack and Tim Curry as Bob Acres. It lIved long in the memory and therefore it was interesting to see what the intimate space of the Watermill theatre in Newbury could do with the classic restoration style comedy of love and deceit. The dated attitudes to the role and expected behaviour of women including the dangers to them of reading is both parodied and reinforced by the play. As a result Director Jonathan Humphreys and Designer James Cotterill make a determined attempt to present the play differently with a cast of just eight.

They set the play not in the houses and parks of Bath but on a Georgian stage with shell footlights and a mass of ornate drapes and a large thrust stage which means a fifth of the audience view the production from the side as very little of the action takes place behind the proscenium arch that the curtains frame. While the curtains do suggest different internal locations they make an odd backdrop to the crucial duelling scene where the truths get revealed. WIth the audience on three sides you might expect them to be regularly addressed with the comic asides of the play but this is restricted to them being asked to hold a book and duelling pistols and occasional glances. This fails to make the most of the setting or make the audience conspirators in the confusion on stage.

Monday, 4 December 2017

REVIEW: The Borrowers at the Watermill in Newbury

Mary Norton’s award winning Borrowers books written in the nineteen fifties present a staging problem for theatre which is easily solved in TV and Film adaptations because the essence of the stories is that the little five inch tall people (The Borrowers) live their lives trying to avoid being seen by the “Human Beans”. The interaction between the two is central to the first book. Toots Butcher’s set design firmly places us in the Borrowers world with a large Colman’s mustard box, abacus, crayons, matchsticks and ABC cubes setting out their home beneath the floors of an old country house in rural England.

It is here we meet Pod (energetically played by Matthew Romain), his worried wife Homily (Charlotte Workman) and their adventurous daughter fourteen year old Arrietty (Nenda Neurer) as Pod returns from another borrowing expedition in the house above. It is easy to accept them as small people in their natural habitat nervously responding to noises from above. The challenge is representing the Human Beans who catch sight of them and it is a weakness of the first half direction that this is inconsistent, sometimes The Boy (played with youthful charm by Frazer Hadfield) is on stage peering into the floor boards, sometimes he is high above look down from a platform and sometime we are asked to imagine he is above the auditorium. The other human beans Mrs Driver (Natasha Karp) and Crampfurl (Ed Macarthur) appear mainly on the stage amongst the Borrowers borrowings. It would have worked better if director Paul Hart had used the high levels of the lovely theatre consistently to represent the Human’s domain and the stage the Borrowers environment.

Sunday, 29 October 2017

REVIEW: Under Milk Wood at the Watermill Theatre in Newbury

Under Milk Wood was first staged in the West End in 1954, the night before it was broadcast by BBC radio and remains today an innovative and delightful play for voices in which Dylan Thomas wonderful poetic language paints glorious pictures of the people and village of Llareggub in Wales . It was also the first professional play at the fantastic Watermill Theatre and therefore is a fitting revival to celebrate their 50th anniversary.

The Play spans one spring day in the village whose name spells bugger all backwards and while it is true not much happens, we meet and learn about the lives and interests of nearly 50 residents in the village . These characters are played with simple costume changes by an excellent cast of 5 and our guide is Alistair McGowan as the voice. He starts in the darkness with "to begin at the beginning " and the light gradually rises as the day dawns and the characters awake from their dreams. The bare thrust stage , with pale blue clouds on a back cloth provides a blank canvas on which his words paint the various locations from Bay view to Bath cottage and along Coronation street and Donkey street . As he says "the town ripples like a lake in the waking haze".

Thursday, 21 September 2017

REVIEW: Picture of Dorian Gray at the Watermill Theatre in Newbury

Oscar Wilde's only book , a Picture of Dorian Gray was first published in 1890 and was criticised for being indecent and subjected to censorship as it dealt with Dorian's pursuit of an immoral life having wished his portrait aged rather than himself . It is a book about a Victorian male aristocratic dominated society with only two female characters, Sybil Vane, an actress from a poor background who commits suicide when Dorian finishes with her and Mrs Vane , her mother. 

The book , a gothic horror , is now on the school's curriculum and therefore seems a natural follow on to last year's Watermill school tour production of Frankenstein . This production stages a version of the book with just three female actresses and is created within the constraints of a school tour budget by Phoebe Eclair - Powell , daughter of comedian Jenny Eclair. She and director Owen Horsley have done a brilliant job translating the tale to the stage and have great fun with the form of the play and turn the budget limitations to clever advantage . A simple illuminated frame is used to create the settings and present the picture itself .
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