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Sunday, 31 July 2022

REVIEW: Whistle Down the Wind at the Watermill Theatre

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1996 musical Whistle Down the Wind represents an ambitious production to mount in the intimate space at the Watermill in Newbury but Director Tom Jackson Greaves has assembled an adult and junior cast that rises magnificently to the task. The first half is stupendous as they create believable well-defined characters, move with a beautifully choreographed ease, and deliver a succession of delightfully enjoyable songs. In the second half, the flaws in Lloyd Webber’s plot are accentuated and the actor-musicians seem to dominate the stage, frequently handing guitars to each other, making it feel overcrowded and detracting from the strong central performances. 

The musical is a complex interweaving of many themes as the original book is relocated from Northern England to the American Southern bible bashing states in 1959. Racial hatred and segregation, evangelical religious themes, grief over a parental death and teenage rebellion overwhelm a rural community when a fugitive takes refuge in a barn. There are hints of Lloyd Webber's earlier musicals Jesus Christ Superstar and Phantom of the Opera with its central relationship between the tattooed flawed man and the innocent young girl and the betrayal of his location by the community. The music is a mix of gospel, rock, and country but the best-known song in the show is “No matter what”, which became a 1998 hit for Boyzone.

Wednesday, 16 March 2022

REVIEW: The Wicker Husband at the Watermill Theatre

The Watermill Theatre continues to set extraordinary standards in creativity and innovation in the small intimate venue while being one of the most pleasant places to go to in its perfect setting by the mill stream and willow trees. When the Government closed Theatres on 16th March 2020 it was the opening night of The Wicker Husband and we have had to wait two years for it to be remounted. The Producers & creators must have despaired that their musical, which has had a long and challenging development phase, might never blossom into the show they dreamed of. That wait is finally over and this beautifully conceived & elegantly staged production with its delightful musicality and the joyous cast is set to take the UK by storm. It is one of the best new productions I have ever seen at The Watermill (or anywhere) and deserves to be seen in the West End like The Watermill’s previous hit musical Amelie.

It is a folk opera and a morality tale with hints of Pinocchio and the Wizard of Oz. It weaves together so many wonderful production elements to create an almost perfect show. The puppetry of the Wicker Husband & Basket the dog is magical, as good as you will have seen in War Horse and Animal Farm. You connect emotionally with these wicker creatures and the scene with the Husband lying on an “operating table” is so powerful you completely forget it is a puppet. The rural setting is brilliantly created with the large Willow tree set against the bullrushes and each interior location is ingeniously set with a simply decorated chair setting the Inn, the Cobblers shop and the Tailors and a ladder, the Ugly Girl’s cottage. The lighting is exquisite creating the rural atmosphere and perfectly picking out characters' moments of isolation. The Watermill’s obsession with Actor musicians works a treat this time integrating them into action appropriately but keeping them most actively in vision in the forestage wings under the quiet leadership of Musical Director Pat Moran.

Monday, 29 November 2021

REVIEW: The Jungle Book at the Watermill Theatre

The challenge of adapting Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 collection of stories, The Jungle Book is that most of us know the tale from the 1967 Disney cartoon classic which incorporated brilliant music including “The Bare Necessities” and “I wanna be like you” in telling the story. The memories of that film define how we see certain characters when we hear the names of Shere Khan, Baloo, Bagheera, Kaa and of course, the man-cub, Mowgli.  

It is therefore a bold move to reimagine the story from the original book for a new family show as Tom Jackson Greaves has done this Christmas at the Watermill Theatre. He changes the central theme of the book about abandonment and fostering and the challenges of moving between two worlds of the Jungle and Village into a story about acceptance, diversity, the time it takes to change attitudes and a question of where do we belong. It’s a very topical and clever adaption with a powerful message about the need for role models neatly wrapped up in a festive children’s show. It opens and closes powerfully and engagingly but the story telling does drifts off course in the middle section perhaps an issue with the adapter directing and choreographing his own work.

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.

Tuesday, 1 June 2021

REVIEW: The Hound of the Baskervilles at the Watermill Theatre

When we first saw this show in the August 2020 sunshine it was our first live show after the first lockdown and its celebration of that fact with plenty of jokes about social distancing, face coverings and anti-bac sprays was the secret weapon in an energetic and lively production. It had the feel of an improvised melodramatic pantomime that might have been part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Its quick revival as the opening show in the 2021 summer season is a bold move but the feel was very different on a cold damp May evening with only half the audience tables filled. As live Theatre emerges from the third lockdown, nine months after its first outing the Covid jokes feel less fresh, and the spontaneity feels more laboured.

Abigail Pickard Price's adaptation of the Arthur Conan Doyle story of The Hound of the Baskervilles uses the original novel as a launchpad for a riotous three-handed dash around the Dorset, sorry Devon, moors in search of the Hound which as one character says would have Conan Doyle spinning in his grave. Pickard Price, as an associate director of the Watermill, has directed several shows over the years at the venue and is used to working within the limits of the small venue but on this occasion, she has worked with no set, props from stock, and apparently only four days of rehearsal. This version is staged on the front lawn and the Watermill itself provides an attractive backdrop to the production.

Wednesday, 9 December 2020

REVIEW: A Christmas Carol at the Watermill Theatre

The Watermill Theatre has risen to the unique challenges of programming a theatre and operating it safely in 2020 with an exceptional year mounting five new productions and attracting over 3500 to its tiny venue. The normal capacity of just over 200 has been reduced to just 73 by social distancing and bizarrely you can only drink in your theatre seat and not at a table in the bar under the latest Government regulations but it has navigated these issues with great skill and ingenuity. Bloodshot, Camelot and Lone Flyer provided brilliant memories to the warm welcoming reception you always get there. The Christmas offering is a two handed version of the classic A Christmas Carol adapted for their stage by the playwright in residence Danielle Pearson with a reduced rehearsal schedule and just two socially distanced actor-musicians playing 19 different characters. Could it match the previous outstanding shows? 

Simply staged by designer Isobel Nicholson with dark brick walls with two windows through which shadow puppets are illuminated to add to the cast and a minimum props of a desk (which doubles as Scrooge's Bed), a stool, a ladder and a washing line, the production relies on the two performers to conjure up in our imagination the various scenes. Of course, it is a familiar story with many classic past versions including film versions with Alistair Sims (1951), Albert Finney (1970), and Michael Caine (1992) all playing Scrooge which influence our own imagination as they cast a shadow over any new version. 

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. 

Saturday, 26 September 2020

REVIEW: Bloodshot at the Watermill Theatre

After a very successful outdoor summer season with a fun "Hound of the Baskerville "and an excellent "Camelot", Paul Hart the Artistic Director of The Watermill near Newbury launches a socially distanced indoor season with a revival of "Bloodshot" which previously played the venue in 2011. It is a tour de force performance by Simon Slater in a very safe feeling, well thought out venue.  

To comply with Government Step 4 guidance for indoor performances the team at the Watermill have adjusted the audience flows and the seating plan to create a compliant environment. We enter through the restaurant and are guided to a reserved table where drinks orders are delivered before the show and at the interval. The usual restaurant buffet is replaced by a two-course menu served to the pre-booked table. Masks are required to be worn throughout the visit except while eating or drinking at your table. The one-way system guides you to your seat and each row has been restricted to just four or five seats avoiding the need to push past other audience members and the staggered layout creates natural distance between each party. The effect reduces capacity to 37% of the tiny venue, sold in parties of 1, 2,3,4 or 5 but inevitably matching this to demand leaves some empty seats. It works extremely smoothly and the wonderful staff make it welcoming and enjoyable despite the masks. However, the atmosphere in the auditorium is muted by the social distancing creating a bigger challenge for the performers in getting a response. Slater rises to this challenge tremendously.

Thursday, 27 August 2020

REVIEW: Camelot at the Watermill Theatre

The Watermill has led the way with its short season of outdoor theatre in its delightful grounds. Following its tongue in cheek version of The Hound of the Baskerville, the artistic director, Paul Hart has directed a concert version of the 1960 musical Camelot by Lerner and Loewe with his usual trademark actor-musician casting. It is a simple but charmingly effective staging that showcases the fabulous score.

I am predisposed to enjoy the evening partly because of the warm welcome and consistently high standards the Watermill productions deliver but mainly as the show brings back strong memories of the 1982 production of Camelot with Richard Harris as Arthur and Fiona Fullerton as Guinevere at the Apollo Victoria, which remains one of my all-time favourite musical productions. Harris's powerful charismatic stage presence made up for his lack of singing voice and he rang every emotional response from his final rallying call to young Tom to carry the legend of the knights of the round table home.

Monday, 10 August 2020

REVIEW: The Hound of the Baskervilles at The Watermill Theatre

It was, as always, a delight to travel down the M4 to the wonderful Watermill Theatre near Newbury to see Abigail Pickard Price's post-Covid adaptation of the Arthur Conan Doyle story of The Hound of the Baskervilles. Of course, the experience was very different from my last theatre visit to see Quality Street at the historical theatre in Bury St Edmunds on March 12th. Part of the joy of the show is the celebration of being back watching live theatre, and the audience and the cast enjoy plenty of jokes about social distancing, face coverings and anti-bac sprays. This sets the tone of the show, a melodramatic Pantomime which uses the original novel as a launchpad for a riotous three-handed dash around the Dorset, sorry Devon, moors in search of the Hound which as one character says would have Conan Doyle spinning in his grave! 

Pickard Price, as an associate director of the Watermill, has directed several shows over the years at the venue and is used to working within the limits of the small venue but on this occasion she has worked with no set, props from stock, and apparently only four days of rehearsal. The limits of the production constraints show, a bit like an Edinburgh Fringe show but that is part of its charm. The outside setting with the audience seated at tables of four seats adds to the fun as the cast move amongst them and applaud themselves on and off stage as they run to and from the usual dressing rooms.

Saturday, 23 November 2019

REVIEW: The Prince and the Pauper at the Watermill Theatre

The Watermill Theatre has been establishing a unique style of family Christmas shows at the intimate Berkshire venue offering an enjoyable alternative to pantomime . Sleeping Beauty (2016), The Borrowers (2017) and Robin Hood (2018) are followed up this year with a seven week run of The Prince and the Pauper with mainly matinee performances at 10.30 am, 2.30 pm and 5.30pm. They are simple charming storytelling shows that will appeal to any child and their parents.

Chinonyerem Odimba has adapted the Mark Twain's 1881 novel for the stage with music by Tarek Merchant and envisaged it as a band of medieval strolling players retelling the tale as a children's story. They have retained Prince Edward as the Tudor prince and the London setting but freely adapted the rest for their target audience. The soldier Miles Hendon becomes a talking dog, the Tudor judicial system gets changed to a Victorian Workhouse and the Pauper Tom becomes Tomasina, a young girl who looks nothing like the Prince! When the court tries to test Tom as to whether she is king they use magic tricks, Brussels sprouts and a delightful puppet dog, Bonzo to appeal to the kids. However they retain the core message of the story of the need to promote greater social equality and not judging people by their appearance. 
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