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Posted by : Rod Dungate on Jul 28, 2005 - 02:41 PM Archive
Watermill West Berkshire Playhouse until 10th September
Running Time: 2 hours, 10 minutes

Review by Stewart McGill, 27th July 2005

An important venue that should be saved; though this time a disappointing play
Visiting the Watermill situated just outside Newbury in the idyllic village of Bagnor one would hardly be aware of the importance of this producing theatre. A converted mill, still with echoes of its former life, not least the waterwheel itself as audiences pass into the auditorium. This place is a romantic dream, an idyll of England but realistically this is one of the UK's finest theatres and it is under threat.

In 2006 the Grade II listed building including theatre, house, restaurant, accommodation for actors and gardens are due to come up for sale. The owner and exemplary Artistic Director, Jill Fraser MBE with her husband James Sargent is moving on after building a unique environment for the creation of exceptional work. Each year six new theatre productions are mounted covering classical, comedy, contemporary, family and Shakespeare work. Here Ed Hall's magnificent Propeller create their all male Shakespeare's, here John Doyle has made music theatre in superb chamber style and here new directors have forged their craft under the guidance of Jill and her team of creative artisans.

A trust has been set up to save the Watermill and need to raise £3,000,000 to purchase the complex and carry out essential work to develop the theatre for the next generation of artists and audiences. It's a lot, but the alternative is unthinkable, the conversion of the theatre to conference centre or property development. The site is ideal for both options it's easy to imagine many firms taking up residence at Watermill or the lure of a dwelling on the river. Be clear in what this means, the UK will lose one of the most important creation centres in the country.

Watermill sends work to regional theatres, London, overseas on a regular basis. Hall's groundbreaking The Winter's Tale shortly jets off to the USA and Doyle's Sweeney Todd is Broadway bound. Yet its not only the high profile productions that demand the saving, Watermill's youth, community and social projects within the rural community are as vital as the main productions. This is a theatre that does not shy away from challenge, confront expectations or neglect accessibility to all comers.

I have been visiting Watermill for only a short time, lured by Propeller's launch of Rose Rage in 2002 yet decided then and there this was no conservative outpost, here was a radical rethinking of chamber theatre in the most unlikely of settings. Since then I have been thrilled and moved by the range of work undertaken, the visual imagination, the close up performances, language, music, a sense of danger, a sense of direct theatre.

Recently The Arts Council of England gave Watermill a touring franchise that enables other theatres to house product, this year The Winter's Tale and bound for next summer Jonathan Munby's take on Tartuffe. I like to think that this is a strategic move forward not a last gasp before the bulldozers move in.

Imagine a redeveloped Watermill with new restaurant facilities, additional rehearsal space, better accommodation and yes sewerage upgrade.. a continuation of Jill's vision under a new Artistic Director and a reaffirmed mandate for excitement and experiment. It is very possible with lots of support to enable the Watermill Theatre trust to purchase the property. I am not sure how many readers journey to the theatre by the river, it's a good time to do so, take a look around, look at the new season, consider what can happen and dread what may happen if the sale to the trust does not take place. In a corporate culture, another conference centre is a horror I urge readers to help save the Watermill and anticipate more years of vibrant creation.

Now I feel I am letting everyone down by saying that I really didn't like Thieves Carnival. This is simply a comedy of fluff and over the top performances staged both in the theatre and the gardens. Despite a light drizzle I got the gist of it but found the gags largely unfunny and the style too much. Homage to older theatrical traditions and genre is fine but the attempt at silent movie, larger than life characters and impossible situation wore very thin. Gary McCann's interior design seemed dwarfed by the actors, even Janie Armour's music well played by the company failed to delight. Perhaps Andy Breretan's production will work with an audience ready to let go, on a sunny evening and with a little honesty in performance. In this chamber it was all too much and I left feeling a sense of emptiness most unusual in this space. So even Watermill can fail, which makes it even more vital to save so that Artistic visionaries can experiment and shape the future, hopefully, not many more Thieves Carnivals but still important to discover work even if best left buried.

Anyone interested in helping should contact:
Susan Foster, Watermill Development Director
01635 570928 or

Cast: Eva: Kate Adams, Peterbono: Paul Benzing, Dupont-Dufort Junior: Kieran Buckeridge, Dupont-Dufort Senior: Derek Crewe, Gustave: Michael Lambourne, Lady Hurf: Karen Mann, Juliette: Louise Shuttleworth, Lord Edgard: John Surman, Hector: James Traherne, Town Crier/Nursemaid/Child: Hannah Tristram.

Creative Team: Directed by Andy Brereton, Designed by Gary McCann, Lighting by Oliver Fenwick, Music by Janie Armour.
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