“a performance of enormous range and sparkling energy”
There’s something remarkable happening at the picturesque Watermill Theatre in Newbury. On the night that London theatres closed and coronavirus gloom descended upon the nation, I was privileged to be part of an evening of pure enchantment, as a musical over eight years in the making made its debut on this most creative of stages.
First, forget whatever other associations the title The Wicker Husband may conjure. This has nothing to do with the film The Wicker Man. Second, prepare to be transported into a bright and delightful mythic world that is based on a short story by Ursula Wills-Jones and wonderfully adapted for the stage by Rhys Jennings (book) and Darren Clark (music and lyrics).
This sweet and affecting story is profoundly moral in an entirely natural way. It is a very English tale of the trees and water that somehow seems to draw both on Yorkshire mystery plays and American musical theatre. It asks the questions that social media so often gets wrong. Where does beauty really reside? And what’s it like to be an outsider, shunned by all the pretty people?
A multi-talented company of 12 are joined on the Watermill’s tiny stage by a number of wicker puppets made and operated in the exposed Japanese ‘bunraku’ style (think Warhorse). These extraordinary and beautiful creations by Finn Caldwell and team are brought to life by Eilon Morris, Yazdan Qafouri and Scarlet Wilderink. Qafouri (a winner of BBC One’s Let It Shine) has one of the many fine voices in this show. He is more than matched by Laura Johnson as the Ugly Girl, for whom the wicker husband is created. Here is a performance of enormous range and sparkling energy.
Julian Forsyth has a pivotal role as the Old Basketmaker whose weaving gives new life to the willow withies, sea grass and blackthorn. He has an impressive stage presence and a fine singing voice. Other members of this cracking and committed cast are Jack Beale, Angela Caesar (who as well as being an actor is also an opera singer and one of three fine violinists in the show), Claire-Marie Hall, Stephen Leask and Zoë Rainey.
The show interweaves puppetry with some two dozen catchy ballads, several dance routines (Steven Harris) and any number of opportunities for the cast’s instrumental skills to shine, with some highly effective lighting by Hartley TA Kemp, clean and effective design by Anna Kelsey and inspired direction by Charlotte Westenra.
As the programme describes, this production is the result of several dedicated years of workshops, competitions and mentoring. It is a fine testimony to the enormous creativity of the British stage and a highly recommended antidote to much else that besets us now.
“Maitland’s vocal control in particular is quite staggering, bringing a coiled strength to the small auditorium.”
Often described as the sequel to ‘Fiddler On the Roof’, ‘Rags’, originally written by Joseph Stein (who did also write ‘Fiddler’) enjoyed only four days on Broadway in its 1987 debut. Regardless, it was nominated for five Tony awards that year. But, more baffling still, it has never been brought back to the stage, that is, until now.
Revised by David Thompson and directed by Bronagh Lagan, ‘Rags’ tells the story of Jewish immigrants making their way to America at the turn of the twentieth century. Among the boatloads of hopefuls is Rebecca (Carolyn Maitland), with her son David (as played by Jude Muir for this performance), who, without any family or a nickel to her name, is determined to succeed in this new promised land.
As with most sequels, ‘Rags’ has loosely the same narrative arc as its predecessor: A community of traditional Jews fights off the outside world on multiple fronts, be it via assimilation, persecution or modernisation. Certain familiar characters re-appear as well. Ben (Oisin Nolan-Power) for example, a nice but nerdy tailor seeks the affections of Bella (Martha Kirby) whose father, Avram (Dave Willetts) disapproves of the union. I mean, why not just call them Motel and Tzeitel and have done with it.
But ‘Rags’ does depart from ‘Fiddler’ in its sheer volume of historical content, including everything from the 1909 Shirtwaist strikes and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire to the emergence of feminism, the rising popularity of Yiddish theatre and song writing, and culture clashes, not only between different ethnicities and religions, but also first and second-wave immigrants. In order to include all of this, every character symbolises a school of thought, be it capitalism or communism, traditionalism or modernisation. And this leaves little room for any of the characters to have any, well, character. The older generation – aunt, uncle and father – bring a little Yiddish flavour from the old country, but aside from that everyone is a bit bland.
The soundtrack (Charles Strouse/Stephen Schwartz) flits between a klezmer-ragtime fusion, and modern musical numbers. The former is accompanied by a swaggering Klezmer band wondering the stage, playing various bit-parts as they go. The small ensemble brings a tonne of humour and spirit to the production. Clarinettist Natasha Karp is a particular joy to watch, her constant facial expressions a kind of running commentary on the story’s goings-on.
The more modern numbers, however, are generally forgettable and feel mismatched with the themes of the plot.
The set (Gregor Donnelly), consisting of a wall of suitcases, and sparse furniture, provides an atmosphere of transition; of both hope and hardship. Whilst Rebecca, Bella and David have just arrived, the small apartment has been the home of multiple immigrant families before this one, and will no doubt go on to house many more after, and the set succeeds in keeping this feeling of flux throughout.
The cast themselves are gloriously talented, doing their best to inject colour and excitement to a story that drags on at least a half hour too long. Maitland’s vocal control in particular is quite staggering, bringing a coiled strength to the small auditorium.
But whilst ‘Rags’ was not intended as a direct sequel for ‘Fiddler’, it’s hard not to consider it as such and, as is often the case with sequels, it doesn’t stand up to comparison. Yes, there are a couple of catchy numbers, a couple of funny scenes, and a couple of moments of heartfelt reflection. But not enough on any count, and unfortunately this revival is less a story of rags to riches, and more rags to run-of-the-mill.