A Dark Time for the Theatre

Watermill - The Wicker Husband

The lights are going off in theatres across the country. In our area, just about everything is cancelled at least until the end of March, and it’s likely to be for much longer. I was lucky to see one of the last performances of The Wicker Man at The Watermill (see my review below).

Disappointing for audiences, but potentially very serious financially for both amateur groups and professional theatres. The Newbury Corn Exchange have posted what most theatres must be feeling: “As a charity, the financial implications of this closure are huge. We will be offering refunds, but we need the support of our audiences to get us through these difficult times. If you can afford to consider donating the cost of your tickets to the Corn Exchange, we would be truly grateful.” The new bailout measures announced by the Chancellor may help, but it’s going to be tough.

Newbury Spring Festival is also cancelled and organisers are asking ticket buyers to consider not asking for refunds but donating the value of the tickets to help the festival survive

Although we can’t go to the theatre, it’s possible to see films of live theatre productions in your own home. digitaltheatre.com/consumer offers a great choice of productions for £9.99 a month (cancel at any time) including:

  • The RSC’s Hamlet with Paapa Essiedu
  •  The Crucible from The Old Vic
  •  Antony Sher’s King Lear from the RSC
  •  Maxine Peake’s Hamlet from the Royal Exchange
  •  Funny Girl with Sheridan Smith
  •  Arthur Miller’s All My Sons with Zoe Wanamaker and David Suchet

Yes, I’m a Shakespeare fan but there’s loads more, including Musical Theatre, Opera, Ballet and Classical Music, all from live performances.

I also recommend ‘The show must go online‘ on Youtube, a weekly Shakespeare reading group, covering the plays in the order they were written, helping actors and theatremakers to stay connected and creative during unprecedented times.

Paul Shave

The Wicker Husband at the Watermill

A lively, funny, intriguing production – I hope you have the chance to see it”

I was going to start this review by saying that The Wicker Husband is one of the most unusual and interesting plays you will see this year but it looks as if the Watermill will have to close so you may be unlucky. Hopefully it will return later.

The play is about how we deal with outsiders, people who don’t fit in with our social group, and how to be kind to them. The Ugly Girl is an outsider, catching and gutting fish and selling them in the village. The villagers (the cobbler, the tailor, the innkeeper and their wives) despise her because she’s poor, on her own and – in their eyes – ugly. She meets the Old Basketmaker, another outsider who lives in his workshop with his wicker dog, Basket, and she persuades him to make her a wicker husband.

When the Ugly Girl appears with her husband, he has a startling effect on the villagers; first admiration then conflict, leading to her rejection again.

And, and, and… so much to say about the production. First, it’s a musical with a team of actor/musicians as you’d expect at the Watermill but with the instruments played more in the wings and less in-your-face that in other productions. It’s described as a ‘folk-inspired musical’ and the songs are quite folky, with music and clever lyrics by Darren Clark, all sung with great clarity.

Then it’s a puppet show. With the leading man a wicker puppet, manipulated and voiced by two puppeteers, Eilon Morris and Yazdan Qafouri. We’ve seen this before in War Horse, but here he can talk and sing as well as dance. As well as him there’s Basket the dog, very fetchingly manipulated by Scarlet Wilderink, and various other characters including a cat and a king-size lark. The puppets were built in a short timescale, starting six weeks before rehearsals, and the results and the skill of the puppeteers are outstanding.

As Ugly Girl, Laura Johnson sang well and brought pathos to the part. The Old Basketmaker, Julian Forsyth, had a powerful presence and a strong singing voice. The villagers were an unpleasant group, bringing much of the comedy to the play. In particular, Zoë Rainey as the Tailor’s Wife was two-faced and duplicitous and would have got some boos if this were a pantomime.

Anna Kelsey’s set dominated by a huge willow tree went well with the Watermill’s bucolic surroundings.

The Wicker Husband, written by Rhys Jennings, is based on a short story by Ursula Wills-Jones; Jennings and director Charlotte Westenra have been involved with it for most of its nine-year gestation period. The end result is a lively, funny, intriguing production and I hope you have the chance to see it.

Paul Shave

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