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Posts Tagged ‘Watermill Theatre Newbury’

This is one of the less frequently revived Sondheim shows, but I’ve been lucky enough to see it four times since its UK premiere at the Donmar in 1992, and it always repays a fresh look, as it does again here.

Designer Simon Kenny has turned the Watermill into a distressed red striped barn, which creates the perfect intimate space for the nine successful and failed assassins to tell their stories and reveal their motivation. From Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, the father of them all, to more recent attempts on the lives of Regan, Nixon and Ford, some are deranged, some motivated by perceived grievances. It can sometimes seem like a series of individual stories, but in Bill Buckhurst’s production, connections are emphasised and common psychological themes revealed, and the handling of the final assassin’s story brings them together superbly.

The clever references to contemporary gun crime are chilling, with a vending machine and a surprise late arrival. The transformation to, and pivotal scene in, Dallas is deftly handled, with Alex Mugnaioni showing great presence as Booth. The balladeer is played by a woman for the first time, and Lillie Flynn sang the role beautifully. The staging of Garfield’s assassin Charles Guiteau’s hanging was brilliant, with Eddie Elliott making a great job of I Am Going To The Lordy. Steve Simmonds’ meltdowns’ as Nixon’s would be assassin Samuel Byck were terrific. The whole ensemble acts, sings and plays all of the the instruments brilliantly.

It’s only five years since I last saw it, but it resonated differently again, and it was great to see this small scale production in one of my favourite theatres. Too late for Newbury, but it’s heading to Nottingham, you lucky East Midlands peeps.

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Despite writing lots of songs that have become standards, only two Cole Porter stage musicals have continued to be revived with any regularity – this and Anything Goes – and there have only been four West End productions of Kiss Me Kate since the UK premiere nearly seventy years ago. This is a hugely ambitious actor-musician production with a cast of just twelve, but it’s in the theatre that developed this form, with Chioma Uma, a graduate of the drama school actor-musician course it spawned, making an auspicious professional debut as Hattie no less.

The play-within-a-play idea was inspired. A theatre company touring Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew with the relationship of the leading actors Lilli and Fred mirroring that of Kate & Petruchio. It provided lots of opportunities for Porter and his book writers Sam & Bella Spewack to include references to, and puns on, Shakespeare’s plays, notably the showstopper Brush Up Your Shakespeare, without making them in any way highbrow or inaccessible to the average musical theatre goer. It’s a very witty concoction with a lot of now instantly recognisable songs and it has two of the greatest act openers with Another Op’nin, Another Show and Two Darn Hot.

Though it’s a ‘big’ show, and all four productions I’ve seen have had more resources and bigger spaces, I’ve always wondered how it would work scaled down. As it turns out it adds to the touring production aesthetic, as does the actor-musician form. You don’t have to do much to the Watermill to provide stage locations, so designer Frankie Bradshaw does so with a backstage wall, a few fly-ins and a stage curtain, concentrating more on good period costumes. Oti Manuse’s choreography has limited space but comes into its own during Too Darn Hot, which was sizzling. Brush Up Your Shakespeare is tough to pull and make your own, but Sheldon Greenland & Robert Jackson made a great job of it, donning different hats for the two reprises. I don’t remember seeing the references to segregated audiences before, but it adds a wholly relevant period detail and a welcome serious note.

Rebecca Trehearn captures the feistiness of Lilli / Kate perfectly, with great vocals. I’m less familiar with the work of David Ricardo-Pearce, but he turned in a fine performance as Fred / Petruchio, working the audience brilliantly in Where Is The Life That Late I Led? Kimmy Edwards was a bundle of joy as Lois and there was a great cameo from Tom Sowinski as rich and powerful Harrison, out to bag Lilli. Paul Hart marshals his limited resources but plenty of talent to great effect.

Our visits to Watermill’s summer musicals have long been a tradition and a treat, but this year we had the lovely Amelie preceding this, and the hotly anticipated Assassins to come. Our cups runneth over.

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This musical, based on the 2001 French romantic comedy film, had a short run on Broadway two years ago and has now been reworked for a UK tour starting at the Watermill in Newbury. It’s hard to imagine a less suitable show for Broadway or a more suitable one for the Watermill. It’s a delight.

We follow Amelie from her childhood, home schooled, losing her mother in a tragic accident – crushed by a man committing suicide by jumping off Notre-Dame! – eventually leaving home at 18 to work in a Paris cafe, a place as eccentric as her home. She’s very much in her own world, living her fantasies as well as her life. Her most significant fantasy happens when Princess Diana dies, which takes us to Elton John at the funeral (a superb turn by Cadlan McCarthy)!

She devotes her life to schemes to improves the lives of others, including reuniting someone with their childhood memorabilia, persuading her father to fulfil his ambition to travel the world (inspired by the travels of his garden gnome, containing the ashes of his wife!), matchmaking between a co-worker and a customer and preventing the ill-treatment of a greengrocer’s assistant, whilst the artist she has befriended sets her off in the pursuit of love, on a trail involving photo booths.

Daniel Messe’s score is gorgeous, with a real French feel. Craig Lucas’ book and Messe and Nathan Tysen’s lyrics tell the quintessentially French story of love, kindness and loneliness beautifully. Madeleine Girling’s design uses wrought iron and faded posters to conjure up Paris, with Amelie’s charming apartment on a second level.

The Watermill is the home of actor-musician shows and I’ve seen many there, but the musical standards for this one are sky high. It’s a terrific ensemble of twelve, led by Audrey Brisson’s outstanding Amelie. She has an other-worldly quality, wistful, bucketloads of charm and the purest of voices. Michael Fentiman’s staging is completely in tune with the material.

One of the best musicals we’ve ever seen at the Watermill, and that’s a big compliment, one of the best new musicals for a while and a must-see for any lover of musical theatre.

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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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It’s eight years since the Menier transferred their superb revival of this show to the West End, so enough time has lapsed for me to want to see it again, though with a tinge of sadness in the week its book writer Neil Simon died. The Watermill’s revival is in its customary actor-musician style, with a touch of updating for good measure.

Based on a Fellini film, the adaptation by Simon, with music by Cy Coleman and lyrics by Dorothy Fields, tells the story of dance-hall hostess Charity and her search for love. It starts with her being dumped, and almost drowned, by then boyfriend Charlie, before a one-night stand with Italian film star Vittorio and a two-week infatuation with nerdy accountant Oscar. It’s one of the few musical comedies without a happy ending.

The wonderful Gemma Sutton plays Charity with a combination of dippy charm, naivety, gullibility and eternal optimism, more vulnerable than usual, and she’s sensational. Her fellow hostesses try to inject some realism to prevent her exploitation, but her rosy specs are irremovable. Even though they are ‘taxi dancers’ (present day lap dancers), there’s a strong suggestion that ‘clients’ can pay more for additional services, which must have been a bit shocking when it premiered fifty years ago, though its also suggested Charity is more innocent than the rest.

The story seems a bit thinner this time around, particularly in the first half, but the score is packed with great songs – Big Spender, If My Friends Could See Me Now, There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This, The Rhythm of Life – and they are sung and played very well. As usual, they work wonders with the small space. Diego Pitarch’s design is all black, white and red, with heart-shaped arches that light up and a small video screen at the back to signpost locations like Central Park. The costumes are more contemporary than 60’s.

The rest of the cast is excellent, with an auspicious professional debut from Alex Cardall as Oscar, and another from Tomi Ogbaro as the bass playing head of the hippy dope-smoking Rhythm of Life Church. In Paul Hart’s production, they all play instruments, in brass-dominant arrangements, and the hostesses as showgirls moving whilst playing saxes and trumpets prove irresistible.

Another treat at the lovely Watermill.

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It’s takes a brave theatre, a brave director and a brave leading actor to revive this 2009 Jez Butterworth play, which had two West End runs and one Broadway run in the two years following it’s Royal Court premiere. Less than two week’s ago, The Guardian’s Michael Billington listed the ’25 best plays since Jerusalem’, which he referred to as ‘the hit that transformed British theatre’. One of those was Butterworth’s The Ferryman which is Broadway-bound, having just completed almost a year in the West End following it’s Royal Court premiere in 2017. It’s a big show for the Watermill, but they pull it off with great aplomb.

I still stand by my earlier thoughts (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2010/02/11/jerusalem) though my reaction has evolved through the passage of time and changes in the country, which seems to be clinging to a Jerusalem of its own. Rooster Byron is the ultimate rebel, the lovable rogue that some see as the personification of evil – contributing nothing to society, leading their children astray, polluting their backyard with noise and junk, but he’s also a defender of rural encroachment, gentrification, the rights of outsiders and independence.

I thought the other characters came to the fore this time – Ginger refusing to grow up, Davey not seeing the point of leaving Wiltshire, Lee naively thinking he can see the world with a one-way ticket to Australia and $200, but still reluctant to go, emasculated publican Wesley and The Professor, clearly unfulfilled with nowhere to go. Rooster’s past also seems more significant, with the arrival of his ex and son more poignant.

Designer Frankie Bradshaw has brilliantly created the same wild glade with caravan in the woods, much more intimate in the Watermill, and referenced the Flintock Fair in dressing the auditorium. Jasper Britton makes Rooster Byron his own, in a towering performance, with outstanding support from a cast who are so good they banish from the memory those that came before, particularly Peter Caulfield as Ginger, Santino Smith as Davey and Sam Swann as Lee.

This is a fine early revival, by Lisa Blair, of a ground-breaking state-of-the-nation play, perhaps even more timely today. Another great reason to head west to this lovely, ambitious theatre which consistently delivers.

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The Best Theatre of 2017

Time to reflect on, and celebrate, the shows I saw in 2017 – 200 of them, mostly in London, but also in Edinburgh, Leeds, Cardiff, Brighton, Chichester, Newbury and Reading.

BEST NEW PLAY – THE FERRYMAN

We appear to be in a golden age of new writing, with 21 of the 83 I saw contenders. Most of our finest living playwrights delivered outstanding work this year, topped by James Graham’s three treats – Ink, Labour of Love and Quiz. The Almeida, which gave us Ink, also gave us Mike Bartlett’s Albion. The National had its best year for some time, topped by David Eldridge’s West End bound Beginning, as well as Inua Ellams’ The Barbershop Chronicles, Lee Hall’s adaptation of Network, Nina Raine’s Consent, Lucy Kirkwood’s Mosquitos and J T Rogers’ Oslo, already in the West End. The Young Vic continued to challenge and impress with David Greig’s updating of 2500-year-old Greek play The Suppliant Womenand the immersive, urgent and important Jungle by Joe’s Murphy & Robertson. Richard Bean’s Young Marxopened the new Bridge Theatre with a funny take on 19th century history. On a smaller scale, I very much enjoyed Wish List at the Royal Court Upstairs, Chinglish at the Park Theatre, Late Companyat the Finborough, Nassim at the Bush and Jess & Joe at the Traverse during the Edinburgh fringe. Though they weren’t new this year, I finally got to see Harry Potter & the Cursed Child I & II and they more than lived up to the hype. At the Brighton Festival, Richard Nelson’s Gabriels trilogycaptivated and in Stratford Imperium thrilled, but it was impossible to topple Jez Butterworth’s THE FERRYMAN from it’s rightful place as BEST NEW PLAY.

BEST REVIVAL – ANGELS IN AMERICA / WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF

Much fewer in this category, but then again I saw only 53 revivals. The National’s revival of Angels in America was everything I hoped it would be and shares BEST REVIVAL with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. The Almeida’s Hamlet was the best Shakespearean revival, with Macbeth in Welsh in Caerphilly Castle, my home town, runner up. Though it’s not my genre, the marriage of play and venue made Witness for the Prosecution a highlight, with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Apologia the only other West End contributions in this category. On the fringe, the Finborough discovered another gem, Just to Get Married, and put on a fine revival of Arthur Miller’s Incident at Vichy. In the end, though, the big hitters hit big and ANGELS IN AMERICA & WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF shone brightest.

BEST NEW MUSICAL – ROMANTICS ANONYMOUS

Well, I’d better start by saying I’m not seeing Hamilton until the end of the month! I had thirty-two to choose from here. The West End had screen-to-stage shows Dreamgirlsand School of Rock, which I saw in 2017 even though they opened the year before, and both surprised me in how much I enjoyed them. Two more, Girls and Young Frankenstein, proved even more welcome, then at the end of the year Everybody’s Talking About Jamie joined them ‘up West’, then a superb late entry by The Grinning Man. The West End bound Strictly Ballroom wowed me in Leeds as it had in Melbourne in 2015 and Adrian Mole at the Menier improved on it’s Leicester outing, becoming a delightful treat. Tiger Bay took me to in Cardiff and, despite its flaws, thrilled me. The Royal Academy of Music produced an excellent musical adaptation of Loves Labours Lost at Hackney Empire, but it was the Walthamstow powerhouse Ye Olde Rose & Crown that blew me away with the Welsh Les Mis, My Lands Shore, until ROMANTICS ANONYMOUS at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at The Globe stole my heart and the BEST NEW MUSICAL category.

BEST MUSICAL REVIVAL – A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC / FOLLIES

Thirty-two in this category too. The year started with a fine revival of Rent before Sharon D Clarke stole The Life at Southwark Playhouse and Caroline, or Change in Chichester (heading for Hampstead) in quick succession. Southwark shone again with Working, Walthamstow with Metropolis and the Union with Privates on Parade. At the Open Air, On the Town was a real treat, despite the cold and wet conditions, and Tommyat Stratford with a fully inclusive company was wonderful. NYMT’s Sunday in the Park With George and GSMD’s Crazy for You proved that the future is in safe hands. The year ended In style with a lovely My Fair Lady at the Mill in Sonning, but in the end it was two difficult Sondheim’s five days apart – A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC at the Watermill in Newbury and FOLLIES at the National – that made me truly appreciate these shows by my musical theatre hero and share BEST MUSICAL REVIVAL

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