“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.
“What comes over as too silly, too exaggerated for me on the small screen, becomes uproarious comedy gold on stage”
This gloriously silly romp is clever, joyful and fabulously funny. There are enough Shakespearean references to please those who know their Bard, and mentions of so many of his plays I thought we were going for the full First Folio. But it’s all sewn together so finely that it never jars. It’s over the top and, at times, quite mad.
There were clearly a lot of fans of the TV series in the audience, and I have to confess that I don’t really like it on television. What comes over as too silly, too exaggerated for me on the small screen, becomes uproarious comedy gold on stage. The writing is very clever, and the twenty first century allusions to everything from sexism, racism and homophobia to leaves on the line never jars. Ben Elton has a genius for this, and he’s had a lot of fun with the script. “See it, Slay it, Slaughtered.” You’ll have to see it to find out where that came from!
David Mitchell’s Shakespeare is in need of inspiration. A new play has to be written for the Globe and he has writer’s block. His young friend Kate, a delightful Gemma Whelan, who desperately wants to act, but can’t because it’s 1605, reads a book on the loo. Books that Shakespeare steals his plots from. She tries to help him with ideas and, with the arrival of an assortment of characters including African princes, identical twins, a dancing bear, and a Malvolioesque Doctor Hall, the hapless playwright eventually comes up with a brilliant new play, and the best exit line ever. Mark Heap, as Doctor Hall brings true comedy magic with his ever larger pants and alarmingly cross-gartered cod-piece and Steve Speirs overacts with glee as Burbage. Helen Monks and Danielle Phillips are a delightful double act as Shakespeare’s daughters Susanna and Judith, and Rob Rouse’s servant, Bottom looks like he’s seen it all before, and probably has. The ‘African Princes,’ and supposedly identical, twins Desiree and Aragon, have arrived in the madness that is this particular form of Shakespeare’s London after a shipwreck, and Rachel Summers and Jason Callender enter into the cross dressing chaos with gusto. Reice Weathers deserves special mention for his portrayal of Mr Whiskers the Dancing Bear, and for spending the whole evening under stage lighting in a bear suit. The cast flip from contemporary language to Shakespearean verse with ease and energy, clearly enjoying the challenge. Director Sean Foley, has a real eye for comedy, wringing every last juicy bit of silliness from Elton’s script and Alice Power’s gorgeous set and costume design give us a London and Stratford recognisable from many a Shakespeare play.
The old ‘identical twins separated by disaster who don’t recognise each other because one is dressed as a girl’ thing is further complicated by a ‘black woman pretending to be a white man pretending to be a black man so she can play Othello’ thing, in a dizzying identity confusion. People fall in love with the wrong people, hide behind tiny trees and speak in loud asides that the others on stage can’t hear. It’s all as Shakespearean as can be. And it’s all rather wonderful.