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Posts Tagged ‘Caroline Leslie’

I’m not sure why it’s taken me so long to catch up with this, but I’m very glad I did so in its last week. Of all the excellent commemorations of the centenary of the First World War, this seems to me the most human and the most personal, a play based on a true story of some extraordinary men, which both entertained and moved me.

Ian Hislop and Nick Newman uncovered the story of a satirical newspaper published in the trenches. Captain Roberts and Lieutenant Pearson, when they are shown a working printer by one of their men, decide to produce something that would raise morale amongst the troops and provide some intellectual stimulation for them. They appear to have got away with it because at least one senior officer saw the potentially positive impact on morale, whilst others saw it as insubordinate, disruptive and potentially mutinous. Its satire targeted the officer class as well as the Germans, the French and the war itself. They managed to produce 23 issues over a two year period, despite moving location and losing the first printer, and news of it got back to blighty.

The story is framed by a post-war scene back in London, but the rest takes place in the trenches and nearby towns in an excellent evocative design by Dora Schweitzer, very well lit by James Smith, with an excellent soundscape by Steve Mayo . There are lots of short scenes, with the changes between them animated by songs of the war. It’s punctuated by comic cameos which pop up behind, and music hall turns stage front. I really liked this combination in Caroline Leslie’s fast-paced staging, which successfully blended the humour, the engaging story of the newspaper and the horrors of life in the trenches. I found myself both laughing out loud and welling up. It’s superbly performed by a cast of ten, three of whom each play three roles, led by James Dutton and George Kemp as Roberts and Pearson.

A very respectful tale of defiance and determination, which brings the story of these extraordinary men the posthumous public attention that is long overdue.

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Our now annual outing to the lovely Watermill Theatre near Newbury turns out to be another treat – despite the fact it’s not a particularly good show. It’s amazing how you can breathe life into something by design, staging and performance.

It started as a film with music in 1967 and only became a stage musical, with this score,  in 2000.  I have less than fond memories of the West End transfer of the original 2002 Broadway production 9 years ago, featuring a wooden Amanda Holden as Millie and Maureen Lipman (uncharacteristically) doing comedy-by-numbers. With a fraction of the resources, this production is so much better.

Director Caroline Leslie and designer Tom Rogers were behind last year’s Radio Times (about to embark on a UK tour – don’t miss it!) and again they produce something fresh and funny with just enough of its tongue in its cheek. The design is a hugely inventive use of this pocket-handkerchief space. The backdrop, a black & white map of Manhattan, turns out to have two staircases which you don’t at first see. Doors, windows, curtains and office furniture slide in from the sides (not always smoothly at this third preview – the cast managed to get a few extra laughs from that!). The 30’s costumes are terrific and as they are also largely black & white, when we get splashes of colour they stand out brightly. They even manage to stage a skyscraper window ledge scene effectively!

It’s one of those ‘I’m-sure-I’ve-heard-it-before’ stories (Wonderful Town, anyone?) about a naive country girl (Kansas on this occasion) coming to NYC to start a new life. She has her eyes set on her boss as a husband but instead gets a lovable loser – or is he?  It doesn’t really matter, as it’s a good enough vehicle for lots of laughs (most coming from the superb Amy Booth-Steel as both Mrs. Meers and the office manager), dance routines and general chirpiness.

The now familiar Watermill house style sees the cast doubling up as the band, providing a sound that isn’t technically perfect but is good enough. After a shaky start, Eleanor Brown came into her own as Millie and was well matched by Lee Honey-Jones as Jimmy. Staging it with just 12 actor / musicians is nothing short of miraculous and they all deserve a mention.

The Watermill’s summer musicals prove consistently good, even though we’re now on the third (?) creative team. Well worth a trip west.

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You’d be forgiven for thinking the proscenium arch which helps create the Criterion Theatre in the blitz was a permanent feature of this theatre. This Noel (Me & My Girl) Gay show, set onstage and backstage at a wartime radio show, is so ‘at home’ here in Tom Rogers design.

I was never that keen on Me & My Girl (too twee for my taste) and the most recent outing of this show in the West End was mediocre fare. The Watermill has become such a trusted musicals friend of late, that this didn’t put me off (as it didn’t Copacabana last year) and how right I was. Director Caroline Leslie’s first musical for the Watermill is as good as any that have gone before in their illustrious recent history.

The radio show has a new producer, keen to enforce the rules about what can and can’t be broadcast. The MC / comic / scriptwriter regularly flouts them with his sauciness and double entendres. The ventriloquist doesn’t turn up, which means the producer has to become performer. The guest star is a Hollywood hearthrob, old flame of the MC’s girlfriend, whose arrival threatens that relationship. Oh so simple but with a very funny book by Abi Grant and some fine tunes.

As always here, the actors double-up as musicians, so we get lady saxophonists and an eleven piece ukulele band; the musical standards under MD Paul Herbert are outstanding. The Grosvenor Girls give us those classic forties harmonies and look gorgeous in liberty print frocks and period hairdos and we have Amy the forces sweetheart. There’s a comic number, Ali Baba’s Camel, with everyone dressed in arab robes and fez’s and the song Run Rabbit Run! The smile never left my face.

Many of the lines are corny beyond belief and the double entendres are often familiar, but when they are delivered by Gary Wilmot they are absolutely delicious. He’s the archetypal music hall entertainer who has exceptional comic timing and bucketloads of charm. His hapless sidekick Wilfred is played to perfection by Julian Littman. Andrew C. Wadsworth morphs brilliantly from ‘Can’t Do ‘grump to a stage-struck and unlikely star. Anna-Jane Casey (for it is she!) is of course as fine a romantic lead as you could wish for and her chemistry with Wilmot is key to the show’s success.

This is my ninth Watermill musical and the fifth consecutive one at their lovely home base. It has now become as much of a summer fixture as the Proms, the Globe and the Open Air Theatre. As the show’s best tune says – they’re publishing the sun.

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