“a play that leaves its audience with such an infectious sense of joy”
A Christmas Carol – it’s a story many of us know so well. Based on Charles Dickens’ novel, the Watermill Theatre’s Christmas production is a charming and moving retelling of the famous tale. “A story is a candle in a dark place,” begins our narrator moments before the candle floats in front of us. We are assured that this tale will be a magical one. When Scrooge’s long dead business partner appears in his bedroom, weighed down by chains, he tells Scrooge that three ghosts will come to him, the ghost of Christmas past, present and Christmas yet to come. Across the course of the evening, Christmas Eve to be specific, the three ghosts visit the miserly Ebeneezer Scrooge to show him what life lived in greed will bring him, and to remind him of how he became the man he is today . This is a story of the human capacity to change for the better and it is a heart-warming watch. Danielle Pearson’s adaptation, directed by Georgie Straight, pivots around this sense of a second chance. It is a touching and universal story, full of the harshness of life and the joy of it.
The show is a two-hander, and our two actors Pete Ashmore and Tilly-Mae Millbrook handle their many parts with ease. Ashmore’s Scrooge undergoes an incredibly moving transformation, from the gruff, merciless man we first meet to the joyfully energetic and generous figure the play ends with. Millbrook as the Narrator is warm and playful, bringing the audience into her tale. Between them they also play everyone else, made unrecognisable by a change of accent and a floral scarf. Designed by Emily Barratt, each costume detail denoting a different character is vivid and sufficient.
The set, which features dark bricks and hanging washing, is designed by Isobel Nicholson. A piano is disguised as Bob Cratchitt’s desk branded with Scrooge and Marley’s sign. Several of the ghosts are created through set – a lantern reimagined and a cloaked shape falling from the ceiling. Creating such a multi-role show with only two actors could have proved a real challenge, but the show has been conceived in such a way – through script, costume and design, that we never want for more actors than we have onstage. Clever sound design by Tom Marshall creates the sense of bustling streets and heightens each ghost’s arrival. Harry Armytage’s lighting design is equally clever: two windows at the back of the stage are lit and filled with silouhettes from the cobwebs of Camden to groups of party guests gathered together.
The show is punctuated with beautiful harmonised renditions of classic Christmas songs which the actors sing and accompany themselves, on violin, clarinet and piano. Both are accomplished players and Ashmore’s violin playing is particularly impressive and evocative.
Every element of this show is lovely, well made, detailed, delivered by a faultless cast and creative team. The Watermill Theatre handles the Covid-19 restrictions fantastically and patiently, and it is a pleasure to be back in a theatre again, especially to see a play that leaves its audience with such an infectious sense of joy and the possibility of human nature.
“a gritty, unfurling tragedy filled with constant movement and action”
Scotland’s war-torn landscapes were Shakespeare’s original setting for Macbeth, providing an air of bleakness fitting to a story about a thane who kills his king. Stepping forward in time, this production finds a new current of bleakness to build upon, with dull building facades and army fatigues – all tacked over with a sheen of glitz and glamour, such as the sleek tux and red dress Macbeth and Lady Macbeth wear to crow over their newly-won court. Overall, the Watermill Theatre’s production is a worthy version of the tale, thick and heavy with atmosphere.
The play opens with war, as Billy Postlethwaite’s moody Macbeth greets not the usual ethereal witches, but looming soldiers fresh from the battlefield, who violently prophecise that he shall be king. But the dull underbelly of war is always there throughout the play, even in later scenes of revelry. When triumphant Macbeth and Banquo (Robyn Sinclair) return from war to Lady Macbeth (Emma McDonald), it follows them in the form of ominous throbbing guitar chords and solemn drumbeats. Growing darker throughout the play, especially after the couple murder their king Duncan (a warm-hearted portrayal by Jamie Satterthwaite), these musical touches serve to accentuate the mental anguish of our protagonist and other troubled characters.
The whole play is moody – an aesthetic that draws you in and can be credited in large part to the music and scenery. The musical elements (directed by Maimuna Memon and performed by the company) are an impressive feat; they start off hesitantly but by the end become so omnipresent that you begin to wonder how the play would have functioned without them. Featuring classics such as The Rolling Stones’ ‘Paint It Black’, the song choices are fitting throughout, involving minimal singing and working best as background ambience.
Clever scenery and set design (Katie Lias) casts an intentional shadow over the proceedings. Perhaps the neon lights over Macbeth’s reimagined hotel residence fading to read just ‘hel’ is a little on the nose, but the greying pockmarked building that dominates the stage acts as a nice metaphor for Macbeth’s initial feelings of impenetrability. Lighting (Tom White) is also deployed well against the monochrome backdrop to show blood, battle, and the bright trees of Birnam wood.
While the actors in some cases take a little while to warm up to their roles, the play does offer some new interpretations of familiar characters. Postlethwaite’s Macbeth is reminiscent of a troubled warrior from fantasy media, and while Mcdonald’s Lady Macbeth comes across a little overbearingly posh at the start, she grows to become more developed. Lucy Keirl also does well with the relatively minor role of the reoccurring hotel porter. All round, the performances from the rest of the company (Molly Chesworth, Peter Mooney, Lauryn Redding, Tom Sowinski, and Mike Slader) are generally good and grow with the thickening atmosphere.
Pairing brooding music with the already dark subject-matter, director Paul Hart has created a gritty, unfurling tragedy filled with constant movement and action (credit also to movement designer Tom Jackson Greaves). Watching this adaptation of Macbeth promises to be a dramatic evening indeed.