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Posts Tagged ‘Watermill Theatre Newbury’

Prolific appears to be the word of the month, this time used to describe the output of Graham Greene, whose 79 works include novels & short stories, plays, travel, biography and films. This 1958 novel has been adapted as a film, opera, play and now musical. Set in pre-Castro Cuba, it’s a comic story centred around a vacuum cleaner salesman who turns to spying to supplement his income in support if his young daughter’s expensive lifestyle.

The salesman, Wormold, is approached by Hawthorne from MI6 and agrees to spy. Soon he realises he has nothing to pass on, so he makes things up, information London accepts. He gets ever more ambitious, sending fake drawings and diagrams of military installations, which encourages his superiors to send out a ‘secretary’ Beatrice to help him. Things escalate as invention and reality collide, and there’s an attempt on his life which results in the death of his best friend. Meanwhile he has to deal with the developing relationship between his daughter Milly and military Captain Segura, which is resolved in a game of draughts with each winning move resulting in an alcoholic shot. This latter sub-plot, and his daughter’s spending (one time she comes home having bought a horse!) stretch plausibility.

They do their best to conjure up Havana, but there are only six actor-musicians, though the inventive design by Kat Heath does help. The songs are serviceable, with appropriate Latin rhythms, but don’t really contribute much to the storytelling. The first half lags, but it does improve significantly after the interval. My problem with it is that I don’t think the material lends itself to musical theatre adaptation, and the story seems to have lost much humour in transition. Tightening and speeding up up the first half would help, but I’m not sure it would solve the problem.

It’s well staged by Abigail Pickard Price, and well performed by the six actor-musicians, and provides a pleasant enough afternoon or evening. I respect and indeed admire Richard Hough and Ben Morales Frost for having a go, but it’s not (yet?) a fully formed show.

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I was never really a fan of The Goon Show. Well, I wasn’t born when it started and was still at junior school when it ended. Though I’ve subsequently heard repeated episodes, for me it was never able to compete with Beyond Our Ken and The Navy Lark, both of which started shortly before it ended. When Ian Hislop & Nick Newman’s show began, in a replica of the radio studio, I thought it might be just a homage to it, but its more than that, even though its the part of Spike Milligan’s life that it covers.

Each half starts with a brilliant sound effects demonstration by Janet, illustrating her contribution to The Goon Show and how this changed over time. Co-incidentally, the last show we saw at the Watermill just three months ago, Brief Encounter, used similar sound effects created before your eyes. From here we meet its principle writer, Spike Milligan (I didn’t know that), fellow performers Harry Secombe & Peter Sellers, producer Dennis Main-Wilson & his successor Peter Eton and the BBC Executive and bane of all their lives as they write and perform these madcap shows – 250 of them over nine years.

Based on this showing, they were a lot funnier than I remembered. They were ground-breaking in their surreal eccentricity, largely due to Milligan it seems, and went on to influence many that followed, including Monty Python and The League of Gentlemen. In between show recordings, we see their relationships grow and develop, and Spike’s mental health decline under the pressure of having to deliver scripts to deadlines, which made the recordings themselves seem like light relief.

Paul Hart’s production, with an authentic period design by Katie Lias, is very slick and fast paced and the outstanding cast, led by the excellent John Dalgleish as Spike, deliver with bells on. Margaret Cabourn-Smith is particularly charming as sound effects Janet and Jeremy Lloyd captured the essence of Secombe brilliantly. Peter Dukes stood in for the isolating George Kemp as Peter Sellers and did a remarkable job, without a script in sight.

A charming, nostalgic and funny show that reminds you of the manic genius of Spike Milligan, who went on to do so much more and have a profound influence on generations to come.

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I was so keen to see this again, in a small theatre, and a favourite one at that, that I hadn’t realised that the last revival was only just over three years ago (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2018/04/10/brief-encounter). It’s Emma Rice’s best show (I feel qualified to say this as I’ve seen over twenty) but this revival is the work of Robert Kirby, whose work I don’t know. It turned out to be a very good decision to make the journey to Newbury.

It’s Rice’s adaptation of the film, which was itself a screen adaptation by Noel Coward of his own play, Still Life. The only thing we don’t get this time around is the film footage, but what’s added is brilliant on-stage ‘foley’ sound effects. The staging is different, but just as inventive, and the appropriateness of the cinema setting of 2018 is compensated by the intimacy the Watermill provides, making the unfolding romance more intense, beautifully played by Laura Lake-Adebisi and Callum McIntyre.

There are two other couples, of course. The young love of station buffet staff Beryl and Stanley, lovely turns from Hannah Khogali and Oliver Aston, and love in mature years from Kate Milner-Evans’ Myrtle and Charles Angiama’s Albert. These four play six other roles, with Max Gallagher shining too in his three roles. The nine songs, mostly by Coward, are performed by the cast, who between them play eight instruments, in the Watermill’s usual actor-musician house style.

Kirby, and his design team led by Harry Pizzey, have done a fine job in making the show their own, as much of a delight as on its previous two outings.

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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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My third open air theatrical treat in eight days took me to a favourite haunt, the lovely Watermill Theatre near Newbury. I’d seen a show in their garden before, when they did Alan Ayckbourn’s House & Garden in 2017, Garden performed there with House playing simultaneously in the theatre and the cast moving between the two in real time. Nothing in the theatre this time, but ten actor-musicians on a tiny stage, also moving around the garden, gave us an edited semi-staged version of this rarely performed 60-year-old Lerner & Lowe musical which I have only seen once, somewhat ironically at the Open Air Theatre in 2004.

We’ve lost seven named characters, but only two songs, and we’ve gained a narrator. The tale of both the King’s promotion of honour and justice by the creation of the Knights of the Round Table and the love triangle with his wife Guenevere and the French Knight Lancelot are intact, but some characters and some sub-plots have ended up on the cutting room floor, as it were, but this is a concert version, so it’s the music that matters and that’s where it excels. There were some, but not too many, delicious COVID references, one explaining that Arthur & Guenevere are a real life couple.

The three leads are all excellent. Michael Jibson follows his royal role in Hamilton with a very different king, idealistic and earnest, more charismatic. Caroline Sheen is lovely as Guenevere, torn between two men, in fine voice. Marc Antolin’s Lancelot is every bit as narcissistic as you’d expect, yet charming with it, and he makes a spectacular first entrance. Seven others, including MD Tom Self, play all the remaining roles, and all instruments in the now well established Watermill style. Paul Hart’s staging spills out from the stage with jousts and journeys.

The Watermill’s Covid measures were as professional as my other two open air outings, with even more social distance in this lovely space. My cup runneth over.

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One of the most positive things about 2019 was that more new plays and new musicals made my shortlist than revivals of either; new work appears to be thriving, theatre is alive.

BEST NEW PLAY

I struggled to chose one, so I’ve chosen four!

Laura Wade’s pirandellian The Watsons* at the Menier, clever and hilarious, The Doctor* at the Almeida, a tense and thrilling debate about medical ethics, How Not to Drown at the Traverse in Edinburgh, the deeply moving personal experience of one refugee and Jellyfish at the NT Dorfman, a funny and heart-warming love story, against all odds

There were another fifteen I could have chosen, including Downstate, Faith Hope & Charity and Secret River at the NT, The End of History and A Kind of People* at the Royal Court, The Son and Snowflake* at the Kiln, The Hunt at the Almeida, A German Life at the Bridge, After Edward at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Appropriate at the Donmar, A Very Peculiar Poison at the Old Vic and Shook at Southwark Playhouse. Our Lady of Kibeho at Stratford East was a candidate, though I saw it in Northampton. My other out of town contender was The Patient Gloria at the Traverse in Edinburgh. I started the year seeing Sweat at the Donmar, but I sneaked that into the 2018 list!

BEST REVIVAL

Death of a Salesman* at the Young Vic.

This was a decisive win, though my shortlist also included All My Sons and Present Laughter at the Old Vic, Master Harold & the Boys and Rutherford & Son at the NT Lyttleton, the promenade A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Bridge, Noises Off* at the Lyric Hammersmith and Little Baby Jesus at the Orange Tree.

BEST NEW MUSICAL

Shared between Come From Away* in the West End and Amelie* at the Watermill in Newbury, now at The Other Palace, with Dear Evan Hansen*, This Is My Family at the Minerva in Chichester and one-woman show Honest Amy* at the Pleasance in Edinburgh very close indeed.

Honourable mentions to & Juliet* in the West End, Ghost Quartet* at the new Boulevard, The Bridges of Madison County at the Menier, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Fiver at Southwark Playhouse, Operation Mincemeat* at The New Diorama and The Season in Northampton.

BEST MUSICAL REVIVAL

Another that has to be shared, between the Menier’s The Boy Friend* and The Mill at Sonning’s Singin’ in the Rain*

I also enjoyed Sweet Charity* at the Donmar, Blues in the Night at the Kiln, Falsettos at the Other Palace and The Hired Man at the Queens Hornchurch, and out-of-town visits to Assassins and Kiss Me Kate at the Watermill Newbury and Oklahoma in Chichester.

A vintage year, I’d say. It’s worth recording that 60% of my shortlist originated in subsidised theatres, underlining the importance of public funding of quality theatre. 20% took me out of London to places like Chichester, Newbury and Northampton, a vital part of the UK’s theatrical scene. Only two of these 48 shows originated in the West End, and they both came from Broadway. The regions, the fringe and arts funding are all crucial to making and maintaining the UK as the global leader it is.

The starred shows are either still running or transferring, so they can still be seen, though some close this week.

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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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