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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.

Thursday, 22 September 2022

REVIEW: Othello at the Watermill Theatre

Since William Shakespeare’s Othello was first performed in 1604 it has built up a reputation from the theatrical greats who have played the leads over the years. Paul Hart’s production boldly reimagines the story by adding modern music to draw out the emotions and themes, casts the scheming Iago as a woman and sets the whole play in a modern military base in Cyprus. It creates a vibrant exploration of its themes of domestic violence and the clawing desire for power and control. Each of the lead characters needs to portray both the external presentation of their position but also their inner selves so the play is less about race and more about basic human nature and desire.    

Sophie Stone, a founder of the deaf and hearing ensemble theatre company, dominates the stage as the scheming antagonist of the piece, Iago adapting her style to each encounter to create maximum influence over the manipulable persona she meets. From her loutish ensnaring of Rodrigo (Ediz Mahmut) to her seductive controlling of Emilia (Chioma Uma) and misleading guidance of Cassio (Yazdan Qafouri) she slowly and effectively draws the net around Othello with an obsequiousness feigned loyalty. As she says “I hate the moor” but only we can see this as her plotting evolves. We obsequiousness don’t need to hear Billie Ellish’s “Bad Guy” to know that her villainy is at the heart of this story.

Friday, 8 July 2022

REVIEW: Camp Albion at the Watermill Theatre

As theatres around the country wait to hear whether the Arts Council will include them as a National Portfolio Organisation in support of the new ACE 10-year strategy to “recognise and champion the creative activities and cultural experiences of every person in every town, village and city in this country, and to ensure that more people express and develop their creativity and create more opportunities for them to enjoy the widest possible range of culture”, the Watermill in Newbury is staging a perfect example in its latest production and related activities.

After a thirteen-venue outdoor tour of local towns and villages, the production of Camp Albion arrives for a two-week stay at the Watermill Theatre. Its themes of protest against authority, ecological campaigning, youth culture and mental health pressures will resonate strongly with many under thirties while the dilemma of a road system fit for purpose versus the environmental damage its construction causes will remind their parents of the difficult decisions and compromise that society needs to sometimes face. One campaigner says “it’s a protest, not a war” but at times these standoffs feel more like war than simply putting across a point of view.

Sunday, 5 June 2022

REVIEW: Bleak Expectations at The Watermill Theatre

The Watermill in Newbury has developed its own style of production that now seems to dominate each season’s programming. On the one hand, they present actor-musicians musicals like Our Man in Havana, Wicker Husband & Assassins, on the other hand, they stage new wordy comedy shows like Wipers Times, Trial by Laughter, and Spike. They set generally high production standards with clever settings and good ensemble casts that make the most of the intimate auditorium. There is however a slight sense that the creativity is being stifled by the familiarity with the style of shows they programme. 

The latest offering is Bleak Expectations, a modern reimagining that borrows from Charles Dicken’s narrative style novels of Bleak House and Great Expectations and builds a tale about Pip and an escaped convict who becomes his benefactor and saviour. Written by Mark Evans, there is a whiff of Cambridge Footlights revue about the fast-paced episodic format combined with the smugness and “too clever by half” writing of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and like both of these when it works it is excellent but the two fifty-five-minute acts at times drag as the storytelling is stretched from its original format of 28-minute radio episodes. The production seems to say laugh if you are clever enough to get the reference and there are plenty of laughs, but the parody of Victorian melodrama and sensibilities does at times wear thin.

Wednesday, 20 April 2022

REVIEW: Our Man in Havana at the Watermill Theatre

It has been a very long time since I have read a Graeme Greene novel having studied the Power and the Glory at school but the title Our Man from Havana nevertheless has a strong resonance because of the Alec Guinness film of 1959 and its theme of spy relationships set in Cuba just ahead of the seismic change in the country with the emergence of Fidel Castro and the breakdown of the relationship with America which gave the book a prophetic feel. It was somewhat bold to adapt the book into a new musical and the progress of the development as always was anything but straightforward. With a director for the first workshop, a director for the casting in 2019/20 and a third, Abigail Pickard Price for the actual production the vision for the staging must have evolved over the course of its final development. 

The final show which opened at the Watermill Newbury on the 11th of April is a curious mix described as a rollercoaster comedy in its promotion. It has the feel of a cross between the 1967 David Niven version of James Bond, with Rowan Atkinson’s Johnny English character and Peter Seller’s Inspector Clouseau with some Noel Coward style patter songs and Cuban rhythms and percussion. The comedy of those spy/detective creations is never quite matched in this production. The Programme also describes Havana as the “mistress of pleasure” but we never really get a sense of the casinos, gambling houses and horse racing that attracted the rich and famous but are rather left in seedy bars, clubs and homes. 

Tuesday, 1 February 2022

REVIEW: SPIKE at the Watermill Theatre

Spike Milligan was a comic genius who inspired a generation of new innovative comedy sketch shows with his manic zany brand of comedy. He found fame in the writing and starring in over 250 episodes of the Goon Show on BBC Radio between 1951 and 1960. I first encountered his style of humour when I read his hilarious 1971 autobiographical publication of Adolf Hitler: my part on his downfall and later in his unique series of TV sketches shows Q5 to Q9 between 1975 and 1980 but my lasting memory will be seeing him on stage in 1982 at the Lyric Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue. 

This new affectionate play by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman seeks to explore what made Spike the man he was through his war time experiences, his relationship with his co-stars and his first wife June and the constant battle with the BBC Hierarchy at a loss to understand the appeal his writing had with the listeners. Those who remember him and his humour will enjoy this fast-paced exploration of the period when he was writing the first 150 episodes of the Goon show which tries to capture the essence of all three of the main stars without it seems attempting full impressions of them. It is produced in the style of his shows, full of energy, amusing sound effects and sudden changes of location. 

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Saturday, 1 February 2020

REVIEW: One Million Tiny Plays about Britain at the Watermill Theatre

Craig Taylor first published these short stories in The Guardian and then in a book in 2009 as 95 short plays. The Watermill took a selection of around 30 of them, staged them in 2016 and that production returns to the theatre for a short run . As with any collection of short sketches some work better than others but the selection seems intent to offer a cross section of Britain, eavesdropping on conversations between parents and children, friends and work colleagues. 

The randomness of the stories is emphasised by using a Bingo caller to apparently call the next play number with the two actors feigning surprise at the location they are required to create. In fact the whole show is very carefully choreographed by director Laura Keefe and costumed by Ceci Calf to make the changes slick and part of the entertainment. 

The Bingo link is overplayed when the audience are invited to play a game of Bingo at the start of Act 2 for no obvious reason except that it is fun before being entertained with a simple Bingo song. 

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.

Wednesday, 17 April 2019

REVIEW: Amelie at the Watermill Theatre, Newbury

Amelie UK premiere is at the intimate Watermill Newbury until the 18thMay before embarking on a long tour of venues in England, Scotland and Ireland including some large houses like Wimbledon New Theatre, Woking Victoria Theatre and the Manchester Opera House through to October. It will be worth catching it on the tour to see how it fares as it expands onto these large traditional proscenium arch stages. However here at the Watermill it is off to a very good start capturing the delightful quirky Frenchness of the original 2001 film with Audrey Tautou and reinventing itself by all accounts from its Broadway musical debut.

Its success is built around the petite French-Canadian actress Audrey Brisson who has a joyous expressive face, large sparkling eyes and a glorious voice that means you can’t take your eyes off her even with the rest of the ensemble cast towering around her. She is Amelie the awkward young girl, home schooled with a heart condition who lives in a garret above an Art Nouveau Paris metro station and spies on the odd collection of people passing through. Gradually she makes connections between them and almost invisibly brings lonely people together while still shying away from a relationship herself. The story takes us through delightful flights of fantasy and with an amazingly inventive staging that is amusing, engaging and keeps the pace up throughout most of the show.
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