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Posts Tagged ‘Honk’

Stiles & Drewe are one of Britain’s most underrated musical theatre creators. This was their first (proper) show, staged here at the Watermill some 30 years ago. Both Julia McKenzie and Cameron Mackintosh championed their early work (McKenzie directing and Macintosh producing the premiere of this). McKenzie went on to direct their next show, Honk!, a surprise winner of the Olivier Best Musical Award (beating Mamma Mia & The Lion King!) after it transferred (also from Newbury) to the NT.

Mackintosh has remained their theatrical godfather, commissioning them to successfully refresh and renew Mary Poppins and Half a Sixpence, though other lovely shows like Soho Cinders and Betty Blue Eyes have had less success. I’ve seen it twice before (Tricycle 1990 and Tabard 2010) and now it’s back at the Watermill, this time in the garden, given our ongoing pandemic caution, and I’m delighted to report its a treat all over again.

Based on Rudyard Kipling’s Just So stories, we follow the elephant child, accompanied by the flightless kolokolo bird, in search of the giant crab, who is causing floods by playing with the sea. Along the way, we meet a rhino, zebra, wildebeest, giraffe, leopard, jaguar, crocodile, kangaroo and yellow dingo dog, and visit the parsee man on his island. A wise old magician acts as our narrator.

It’s amazing how these (mostly) animal characters are created through costume colour, a scarf here and a hat there, hair made to look like a mane and some stripes on the arms, in Katie Lias’ brilliant homespun design. As is customary at the Watermill, nine talented actor-musicians play all of the instruments as well as all of the characters, human or animal. It works brilliantly in the theatre’s lovely garden, animals able to spill out from the stage and roam around the audience. Abigail Pickard Price’s staging is as delightful as the story and Stiles’ catchy songs and Drewe’s witty lyrics work their magic.

An absolutely lovely afternoon, not to be missed, whatever your age!

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The show must go on spirit was alive at the Rose Theatre in Kingston last night when the actress playing Milady – a rather significant role – was taken ill at short notice. Their novel solution was for director Francis Matthews to read the part, script in hand, whilst composer George Stiles sang the part from the side of the stage.  The only braver stand-in I’ve ever seen was when writer / director Terry Johnson stood in for David Haig during the original run of Dead Funny at Hampstead Theatre – a part the writer / director had decided needed full-frontal nudity!

It was only the second preview, but the show is in good shape. The book by Peter Raby & the director and the lyrics of Paul Leigh tell the story well, with a good balance between serious story-telling and tongue-in-cheek humour. I’ve never understood why a composer as talented as George Stiles hasn’t had the success Just So and Honk suggested he would; his score for this is very good indeed. Simon Higlett has erected a multi-layered set with lots of entrances and exits which facilitates a pacy staging with plenty of swash and buckle. It’s choreographed by someone more experienced in plays than musicals and most of the time this helps, but the actors aren’t yet comfortable with the movement required of them. I think the best way to describe it is Les Mis Light – and that’s not a criticism!

I really liked Michael Pickering’s D’Artagnan, a combination of fearlessness and naivety. Hal Folwer, Paul Thornly and Matt Rawle are all excellent as the musketeers (the latter is clearly specialising in swash-buckling roles having given us Zorro fairly recently). Kaisa Hammarlund, with four Menier musicals under her belt, is perfect as the love interest, and Iain Fletcher and Kirsty Hoiles (straight out of Spend Spend Spend) make a fine King & Queen. In fact, it’s a great company with a great seven piece band.

This show will clearly grow; based on this showing I think the Rose have a hit on their hands and I hope the proposed West End transfer comes off. More than great seasonal fare, but great seasonal fare nonetheless.

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