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Watermill - The Firebird

29th November 2002 to 11th January 2003.

From the Newbury Weekly News.

Howling success

'THE FIREBIRD', at The Watermill Theatre, until January 4

I never cease to be amazed at the Watermill's capacity to surprise. We've come to expect their Christmas show to be different, but this was something else again. Neil Duffield's The Firebird' is a delightful production taken from Russian folklore.

When we were greeted, or rather hauled from the bar, by the troupe of six actor/musicians in medieval leather half-masks (one of whom made up a raucous ditty based on nine-year-old Tom's school spelling tasks which made grandma's eyebrows rise), it was a pretty strong clue that we were in for an evening in the tradition of strolling players.

A bazaar-load of Eastern lanterns hung from the gantry, creating a glow over Will Hargreaves' minimal set, and the gold braid on the ethnic costumes of the Russian royals glimmered as they caught the diffused light.

Magic was in the air as the storytellers wove their tale, assisted by some ingenious puppet work, not least by the fantastic Firebird. Wired at the head, Paul Harvard manipulated the magnificent mythical beast whose proud neck stood upright and delicate wings wafted with the breeze, lit dramatically by red-hot fire.

We lamented the demise of the Princess of unspeakable beauty, Vasilisa, locked away with Koschei the Deathless, a white-bearded vision that would do 'Lord of the Rings' proud.

We howled along with the wise but wild one-toothed wolf whose portrayal by the hirsute musical director Paul Kissaun lay somewhere between Cossack, Ghengis Khan and a lifetime of chicken soup. His unintentional tail-loss gave rise to much merriment, prompting some nifty ad-libbing from the cast.

We feared the wicked Baba Yaga, the crone with a crow, but loved her hut - a yurg we thought - sprouting skinny chicken legs to shuffle across the stage...

But we always knew, didn't we, that despite the trials and tribulations of banishment and a quest to find the elusive Firebird, young Prince Ivan would win the day - and the girl. Such is the stuff of fairytales.

The show will continue to evolve over the next few weeks as this fine ensemble make it their own.

You must go to see it before January 4 - it's another sure-fire Christmas winner for Jill Fraser's 25th year at our wonderful Watermill Theatre.


This is from the Sunday Times...

The intimate wooden box that is the Watermill couldn't be a better place for Neil Duffield's barnstorming version of the Russian folk tale about golden apples, exotic birds, dentally challenged wolves and the witch Baba Yaga. Told by a group of strolling musicians who transform themselves into tsars, princes and princesses, and then back again, Robert Horwell's production has all the colour, costumes, light, love, songs and laughter that even a very young audience could wish for. As composer, musical director and comic wolf, Paul Kissaun is in danger of stealing the show, but he is so loveable that you want to wrap it up and give it to him anyway.


Greta Hewison, 11, comments: "Usually, when you go and see a children's musical, you think, 'Not another silly sing-along show with annoying women.' But, at the Watermill, it showed how good actors who are musicians can be."

...and this is from the Kick FM Theatre Lifestyle Break:

I enjoyed it. It’s a lot more macho than the last two Christmas shows at the Watermill, and there’s a great comic character: the toothless wolf. It all works very well in the Watermill’s intimate atmosphere, with the actors playing all the instruments as well as singing. It was good fun, and it’ll appeal to kids of all ages. I was watching the faces of some of the kids in the audience and they loved it.


At the last minute (06/01), The Times produced this:

Two stars
Stravinsky I wasn’t expecting, but after being told that Paul Kissaun’s music for the Watermill’s panto belongs to the tradition of “modern West End musical” my feet didn’t exactly dance eagerly along the garden paths and into the theatre. Mist hovered above the millstream; bare trees stood outlined against the grey sky. Here was a landscape remote from the Russia of the firebird legend but I’d have liked it to stay a long way from Shaftesbury Avenue as well.

Commedia dell’arte masks add a further ingredient to the cultural mix. The six players, actor-musicians all, exchange banter with the young audience for a while and then launch into Neil Duffield’s version of the tale, pulling off their masks to become the Tsar, gloating over his tree of golden apples; Princess Katooshka, mean-hearted but spunky; Prince Ivan, dim yet eager; and the troublesome creatures (wolf, sorcerer and witch) Ivan will meet on his journey to capture the firebird.

This fabulous avian, manipulated by Paul Harvard, is a pink Emu with glitter, a thoroughly desirable creature even if its roguish side doesn’t emerge until near the end. Other birds make their appearance when Ivan reaches horrible old Baba Yaga’s hut, said to stand on chicken legs, so it is mildly disappointing to see this represented by a big black lump on the ground.

Still, the witch’s inquisitive raven pokes its beak out of slits in the wall and he’s quite funny. Abruptly the lump lifts itself high off the ground and does indeed move about on sturdy yellow chicken legs. Rapture in audience.

The music is modern West Endy in its fondness for instantly forgettable melodies but somehow this becomes forgivable because its presence has brought the composer himself into the cast. He plays the Wolf With One Tooth, first encountered without any teeth at all — “Go on, laugh!” he snarls at us bitterly, “Have yourselves a good old chuckley-do!” Paul Russell’s Ivan gives him a spare tooth of his own, which fits perfectly, and the Wolf is now his friend for life, carrying him back and forth across Russia to find his heart’s desire.

Katooshka is to Ivan what the Ugly Sisters were to Cinderella, and something has to be done about her before the happy end. In Rebecca Jackson’s performance she is interestingly malicious so can’t be turned into a toadstool, but since she is frightfully proud of her high rank a suitable punishment is not hard to find. Robert Horwell directs pleasantly enough on an open stage fashioned from millstones.