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Posts Tagged ‘The Watermill Theatre Newbury’

In 1987, a quirky and, at that time, highly original little one act musical called March of the Falsettos turned up in the West End for a few weeks. It was the second part of a trilogy but we never saw In Trousers, the first part, or Falsettoland, the third, here in the UK. This is the second and third part together, and its taken 27 years to get here, hot on the heels of a successful Broadway revival three years ago. It’s writer William Finn went on to give us The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Little Miss Sunshine and the song cycle Elegies, and there are a handful of other shows that never made the crossing. His book co-writer James Lapine is better known as Stephen Sondheim’s collaborator on three of his shows between 1984 and 1994.

The story revolves around Marvin, Jewish New Yorker, married to Trina, son Jason. He leaves Trina for a man, Whizzer. Trina goes to Marvin’s shrink Mendel to help her come to terms with it. She gets Mendel to see her son Jason at home, though he might be the most balanced of them all. She ends up marrying Mendel. Marvin and Whizzer bicker, as do Marvin and Trina. He seems to want it all. Marvin and Whizzer split. In the second part we meet the lesbians, Marvin’s neighbours, and he is reconciled with Whizzer. The family rows turn to Jason’s bar mitzvah and the spectre of AIDS appears. The story is told almost entirely in song, thirty-five of them in fact. They are expertly crafted, catchy tunes with sharp, witty lyrics that really do propel and animate the story. Each part starts lightly, but gets serious, and both dare to end sadly. It struck me how ground-breaking it must have been and how much it was ahead of its time. With the exception of the fatality of HIV, it seems more a story of now than then.

This appears to be a big gig for Director / Choreographer Tara Overfield-Wilkinson and she’s done a great job. The real strength of the production is its faultless casting; I loved every one of them. Daniel Boys as Marvin and Oliver Saville as Whizzer excel in both acting and singing and the combination of their voices is beautiful. Laura Pitt-Pulford shines as always as Trina and I loved Joel Montague’s characterisation of Mendel, both also in fine voice. Natasha J Barnes and Gemma Knight-Jones make great contributions in the second past as the lesbians, with great big vocal performances. Young George Kennedy gives an incredibly assured performance as Jason; a most auspicious professional debut indeed.

In the last six months the producers Selladoor have given us Amelie at the Watermill and on tour and Finn’s Little Miss Sunshine at the Arcola and on tour. Long may they continue to deliver such high quality productions like this. Don’t miss it!

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Dylan Thomas’ ‘play for voices’ was never meant to be staged, but it was meant to be listened to rather than read. The staging here is minimal, though you are seeing the characters and the narrator, but they haven’t attempted to match them by age, sex, shape or size, and voices come from all directions, sometimes from unseen characters. Somehow that makes it feel like it was meant to be.

If you’re Welsh, like me, it may occupy a special place in your heart. I have no idea what it’s like if you’re not, so this is one Welshman’s subjective view. It’s the aural equivalent of an impressionist painting of life in a small Welsh seaside town. The characters are archetypes rather than caricatures; you recognise aspects and characteristics of people you may have known. A list of products in a shop raises a smile of recognition which sometimes becomes a wave of nostalgia. It’s music to the ears, words put together beautifully, making something that’s often funny, sometimes rude and always evocative. It’s an expression of Welshness in a time gone by.

Alistair McGowan narrates as ‘the voice’ and five other performers create the thirty-seven residents of the cheekily names Llareggub (try it backwards). There are changes of lighting, some sound effects, children’s voices and the odd scarf or other piece of clothing, but no set or props. A pose or expression are the only addition to the voices. It made me feel cosy, warm and nostalgic. Lovely.

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This and Follies (which I’m seeing again in three days time) haven’t been my favourite Sondheim shows – I’ve always considered them a bit conventional, even old-fashioned, in comparison with the rest of his work. Well, that was until Saturday. This is another musical theatre triumph for the Watermill in Newbury, unquestionably the best of the four staged productions of the show I’ve seen over 28 years. It looks gorgeous, it sounds great and it’s much wittier.

Based on Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 film Smiles of a Summer Night, it revolves around three generations of Armfeldt women – actress Desiree, her mother Leonora and daughter Fredrika. Desiree is away on tour much of the time, leaving Fredrika at home to hear her grandmother’s endless tales of liaisons with European nobles. Her ex Fredrik has a new child bride Anne, who he takes to one of her performances. Her current affair is with the pompous military dragoon Count Carl-Magnus. In the second half, they all meet at the Armfeldt home for a weekend house-party where Anne and the Count’s wife Charlotte plot, Fredrik clashes with Carl-Magnus and Fredrik’s son, trainee priest Henrik, declares his love for his step-mother. It all untangles before it ends with three happy couples and a death!

Musically, it’s one long waltz, more delightful here as the actor-musicians sometimes dance with their instruments, including cellos hooked around necks, some serving an additional purpose, such as Fredrik’s trumpet seeming to duel with Carl-Magnus’ clarinet. Watermill regular Sarah Travis has created outstanding arrangements, mostly using strings and woodwind, with the brilliant use of chimes. The book and lyrics shone like never before, much funnier than I remember. David Woodhead’s design is beautiful to look at, a brilliant evocation of time and place and a superb use of the Watermill space. Amongst its delights are the transformation from house to garden as the first half ends. I haven’t seen much of director Paul Foster’s work, but he does an absolutely splendid job here.

The cast is without a weak link. Josefina Gabrielle has great presence as Desiree, her regrets palpable and deeply moving in Send in the Clowns. Dillie Keane is a revelation as Madame Arnfeldt, with an extraordinary ability to convey things like contempt or cheekiness with facial expressions alone. I loved both Alastair Brookshaw and Alex Hammond as Fredrik and Carl-Magnus respectively, one towering over the other, both determined to win. Benedict Salter’s characterisation of Henrik was excellent. Phoebe Fildes as Charlotte transforms well from naive to vengeful, Lucy Keirl is every bit the nervous bride Anne and Tilly-Mae Millbrook is a delight as granddaughter Fredrika.

This may be the definitive revival. Two more weeks to go. Don’t miss it, Sondheim fans.

 

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This re-working of the Gershwin’s’ 1930 show Girl Crazy came over sixty years later and was a huge hit on both Broadway and in the West End. It was a hit all over again five years ago when the Open Air Theatre mounted it, then transferred it ‘up West’ (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2011/08/07/crazy-for-you). Now this third outing in Newbury’s lovely Watermill Theatre makes it a triple hit.

Ken Ludwig (best known for stage comedies) made significant changes to the original story, a culture clash between the wealth and sophistication of New York City and the somewhat wilder west. In his adaptation, stage-struck Bobby Child, who’s tried and failed to get into the Zangler Follies, is sent by his businesswoman mom to foreclose on a theatre in a Nevada desert town. Theatre owner Everett Baker is a former entertainer who’s deceased wife used to grace the stage with him. Billy falls in love with Everett’s daughter Polly and ships the Follies girls west in an attempt to rescue the theatre and get his girl. His strategy includes impersonating Zangler, which becomes problematic when the real Zangler turns up. In a bizarre but delicious addition, the Fodor’s of travel guide fame (British here, though they weren’t really) turn up to add a third culture to the mix.

The Gershwin’s score has been supplemented by numbers from a handful of their other shows, so the standards count is sky high – Someone To Watch Over Me, Embraceable You, I Got Rhythm, They Can’t Take That Away From Me, Nice Work If You Can Get It……and the musical standards are high too under Catherine Jayes supervision.  As usual here, the actors double-up as musicians, but the musical quality is so good you’d never know it if your eyes were closed.

The Watermill really does seem like a small-town American theatre, a small shed-like building with the addition of a gold proscenium arch and red curtains by regular designer Diego Pitarch, whose costumes are excellent. This is the first show I’ve seen by their new AD Paul Hart, and his staging is at least a match for all those other lovely summer musicals we’ve seen here. Choreographer Nathan M Wright works wonders in the small space. Watching burly, clumsy cowboys burst into dance alongside showgirls is a delight. There’s a particularly good comic scene where the Zanglers meet, and Tom Chambers climbing of, and dangling from, the balcony had us gasping on more than one occasion.

I wasn’t keen on the West End production of Top Hat, or Chambers performance in it, but here he is outstanding in every respect. Caroline Sheen is lovely as Polly, feisty and tomboyish, melting in the end. With another dozen performers, it’s a big ensemble for a small stage, and a very talented one too.

I do love these summer outings to the Watermill…..

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The premiere of this musical in 2000 was a high-profile affair for a relatively unknown American musicals team, Dana P Rowe & John Dempsey – the Theatre Royal Drury Lane no less (they had Cameron Mackintosh as godfather). It wasn’t a bad show, but the theatre was way too big for it. It moved to the Prince of Wales, but didn’t survive the tumultuous summer of 2001. This revival is at the opposite end of the scale, in a theatre about 10% of the size (in truth, a bit too small now) but its good to take a second look and it scrubs up well.

The first adaptation of John Updike’s novel was the stellar cast film with Jack Nicholson, Susan Sarandon, Michelle Pfeiffer & Cher. It works as well as a musical, though the first half is a touch too long. Bored housewives Alexandra, Jane & Sukie get more than they bargained for when devil-like Daryl Van Horne arrives in suburban New England to spice up their lives and wreak havoc on the conservative community. Local do-gooder Felicia and her sometime philandering husband Clyde become casualties, leaving daughter Jennifer (Alexandra’s son Michael’s estranged girlfriend) exposed to the advances of Daryl now that he’s bored with the trio he’s been bedding.

It’s done in the now customary Watermill actor-musician style and it’s exceptionally well cast. Poppy Tierney, Joanna Hickman and Tiffany Graves are a fine trio of ‘witches’ and Alex Bourne makes a great ‘devil’. Rosemary Ashe reprises her world premiere role as Felicia and though her singing is sometimes too ‘operatic’, her ability to regurgitate anything and everything is impressive! Tom Rogers’ design takes your breath away; he brings American suburbia to a converted 19th century Berkshire mill with a grey clapboard house and beds and bars that emerge from nowhere.

This is Craig Revel Horwood’s sixth Watermill show and his staging and choreography is as witty and playful as ever. I felt it was a bit crowded and loud (with inaudible lyrics) occasionally, and there’s so much going on it takes a while to settle, but by the second half its steaming (in more ways than one). There aren’t that many musical black comedies, and it’s well adapted for the form, even if it isn’t that memorable a score. Still, a good enough reason for the annual pilgrimage to Newbury and to be recommended.

 

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When his partnership with Andrew Lloyd-Webber ended, Tim Rice collaborated with the boys from ABBA to create this show about chess champions with a cold war political backdrop and plenty of love interest. I saw it, but somehow it has been erased from the memory – I can’t even remember whether I liked it or not! So off to Woking we go to find out……

I’ve loved most of Craig Revel Horwood’s actor-musician productions since he picked up the mantle at The Watermill Newbury from John Doyle. The best of them was 2009’s Spend Spend Spend and I even liked 2010’s Copacobana! They can breathe new life into weak shows like Sunset Boulevard. Here they scale up considerably with an onstage team of 29 and I’m afraid it doesn’t work. Here’s why:

1. The design is very clever, using light panels and projections. The costumes are good, but there are next to no props. With 21 scenes in 16 different locations, you’re given few references to help you follow the story. Apparently, at one point we were in the Temple of the Reclining Buddah in Bangkok; you’d never know it. It feels more like a staged concert than a show.

2. The sound design buries a lot of Tim Rice’s lyrics and given that it’s virtually sung through, that means burying some of the story too. The onstage musicians sound as if they are miming to a backstage band, so distant is the sound. The lead vocals are over-amplified above this, compounding the problem – it seems like they are on The X-Factor singing to a backing track.

3. With the actors doubling up as musicians, the stage is very crowded for most of the show. This is fine in a ‘big’ scene or chorus number, but completely distracting in a more intimate scene.

4. The show is clever, but maybe too clever for its own good. The slickness means you don’t really engage with the characters or their stories. Frankly, I didn’t give a shit about any of them and was completely unengaged and uninvolved – I found myself watching the stagecraft as if I was its producer taking a look at how my show was shaping up, preparing to give notes to the team.

5. For people who wrote some of the most iconic pop songs ever, the score has nothing remotely as good. It’s mostly sub-operatic mush, with I Know Him So Well the only showstopper. Tim Rice’s lyrical trademark is his wit, but there’s little of that too – though some may have got buried in the sound design.

6. The Theatre Royal, Woking isn’t The Watermill Theatre, Newbury!

The seven leads are fine – particularly Shona White as Florence, who sounds uncannily like Elaine Paige (the original Florence). Unfortunately, the production forces them to act and sing with little subtly. The chorus of clearly talented actor-musicians work very hard.

More is less I’m afraid – lots of talent and energy leading to little entertainment.

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