“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.
“There were gasps of admiration from the audience at the moment one aspect of the set was revealed”
From book to film, book to stage or stage to film, literary works often make successful transitions to new media, but a theatrical interpretation of a film is one of the most difficult to pull off. How to cram all of the colour and spectacle of a much-loved feature on to a few square metres of bare boards? And how to make it work as a musical?
Amélie was an award-winning, quirky and nostalgic French romantic comedy released in 2001. Anyone who has seen it will have strong memories of its unique look and of the charismatic performance of Audrey Tautou as the shy waitress Amélie Poulain.
The Watermill Theatre is staging its own winning production of a musical adaptation of the film, written by Craig Lucas with lyrics by Nathan Tysen and Daniel Messé, who also wrote the music. Originally premiered in the US in 2017, this new version has been re-worked for a British audience. According to Director Mike Fentiman, ‘Amélie is a musical that seeks connections… [with a] strange, foreign, melancholic, philosophical, gentle, elusive world’.
Watching this celebration of Parisian life after the disastrous fire at Notre Dame was a particularly poignant experience. Almost the entire story of the film is told on stage in a series of twenty five musical episodes that amongst others reference Sondheim, Lloyd Webber and gospel music. Amélie is brought up in the seventies by remote parents that protect her from the real world and from real feelings. She works as a waitress in a Paris café populated by lonely eccentrics who she determines to try to help, until she finally finds love herself.
The writing is witty and satisfyingly avoids the obvious. The first number contains a lovely theme that recurs throughout the show, performed by the entire cast playing, amongst others piano, flute, percussion strings and an accordion. This is a multi-talented group of performers, led by the charismatic and ‘mignon’ French-Canadian Audrey Brisson, with Chris Jared as Nino Quincampoix, the photo-booth obsessive, with whom she quickly becomes fascinated. His singing voice is a delightfully mellow contrast to her brighter sound.
Since the story is set in Paris in the 1990s, there is even a rollicking pastiche by a brilliantly swaggering Caolan McCarthy of Elton John’s ‘Candle in the Wind’, which was performed in 1997 at the funeral of Princess Diana. When much of the rest of the show is so animated, Johnson Willis brought a pleasingly quiet poignancy to his portrayal of Dufayel, the ‘glass man’. There were other delightful moments from the entire cast, not least Samuel Morgan-Grahame as Joseph and Fluffy, who managed to make a simple telephone call hilarious.
The design, by prize-winning Madeleine Girling, is simply a marvel. The stage at the Watermill is tiny, and enormous creativity has gone into providing spaces in which to represent the film’s many scenes. There were gasps of admiration from the audience at the moment one aspect of the set was revealed, with some wonderful detailing that beautifully captured the spirit of the film.
Somehow two pianos (with some unexpected surprises within), a dozen performers acting and singing whilst playing violins, cellos, double bass, flute and accordion and a photo-booth on wheels all manage to simultaneously bring the small space to delightful life thanks to the immaculate direction of Michael Fentiman. Movement direction by Tom Jackson Greaves deserves a special mention.
This is a fast-moving, feel-good and heartily recommended show.
Reviewed by David Woodward
Photography by Pamela Raith
Watermill Theatre until 18th May then UK Tour commences