site search by freefind advanced

 Connecting professional and amateur theatre in Newbury, West Berkshire and beyond

Watermill - The Emperor & the Nightingale

28th November 2003 to 10th January 2004.

From the Newbury Weekly News.

A tale well told

The Emperor And The Nightingale, at the Watermill, until January 10

Bagnor has a brat pack for Christmas, headed by one of the highest order, the arrogant young Chinese emperor who will have it all.

Above all, he wants the nightingale, because he's been told it's the most precious thing on Earth. But hey, this guy's been shut up inside the Forbidden City all his life, in the care of the devious Li Si who has ambitions of his own. What does he know of life?

In a land ruled by tiger and dragon kings, who do you trust?

The fighting Tiger King or the cultured Dragon King who appreciates the finer things in life? After the Tiger King has won in combat, he is poisoned and thanks to the machinations of Li Si, fingers point to the Dragon King, exiled in the far-off mountains.

So Young Wu, wet behind the ears, rules the land. Li Si who for all the world resembles a whirling dervish, can now move ahead with his dastardly plan.

It takes the delightfully worldly-wise second parasol carrier, Xiao, who comes down from those same mountains to set off a series of events which opens the eyes of the emperor and eventually puts him back in touch with his people. Xiao has a secret that even she doesn't know.

Neil Duffield's reworking of the Hans Christian Andersen tale is a dream for any designer and the Watermill has landed a dream of a designer in Philip Witcomb.

He's used sumptuous silks, gold symbols, pagodas, paper lanterns, snow and cherry blossom to conjure up some pure oriental magic.

Half-masks remind you that this is actually a troupe of actor/musicians who are telling a story.

Inspired, too, to portray the nightingale, renowned for its heavenly song, with an opera singer who has just finished her first season at Glyndebourne - gliding effortlessly in her kimono and hair bedecked with blossom, as the drab little bird rests upon her arm.

This is a tale well told by an energetic young company and the kids will love it - especially the mist-shrouded dance of a writhing dragon.

On our way out we rubbed shoulders with Paul Kissaun, who wrote the music for The Emperor and The Nightingale.

And don't you just hate it when this happens?

"Remember," I said to young Tom, "he was the bear in last year's Firebird?"

"Wolf, actually," the 'bear' snarled.

"...and you could get eaten for that."

It's always good fun at the Watermill.


From the Sunday Times.

There is a welcome new seriousness in some of the seasonal shows, but I defy anyone not to be touched and delighted by Fiona Laird’s enchanting production, which fits perfectly into this jewel box of a theatre. Neil Duffield’s script and Paul Kissaun’s music are a perfect match, while Philip Witcomb’s design exploits the fantastical chinoiserie. None of this would work, though, if there were not a truth to be told. Louise Clayton’s Xiao, leaves the mountains for the Forbidden City, Peter Caulfield’s callow Emperor Wu finds maturity by travelling in the opposite direction. This is very much an ensemble piece, but Mark Meadows — a mean hand on keyboards — is especially good as the malicious Mandarin. Good stuff.


Greta Hewison, 11, says: “So many children’s shows can be patronising, but the Watermill knows how to create something magical that draws everybody in.”

Vita Hewison, 14, says: “A really enjoyable family show, performed by an excellent cast with great music. They just know how to tell a story.”

And from The Times.

Three stars
The new version of The Emperor and the Nightingale by Neil Duffield is essentially for youngsters but also for anyone who thrills at the sudden sight of a dragon erupting downwards from the roof, twisting its blue serpentine body as though tossed by tempests.
Whether or not this amazing creature helps or hinders the two travellers, Wu, the boy emperor, and Xiao, daughter of the deposed emperor, on one of their many journeys between the Forbidden City and the Sacred Mountain where the nightingale lives — seemingly the only one in China — is for you to find out.

The dragon is not the only spectacular feature of Fiona Laird’s in-the-round production. Peacock feathers and curious birds decorate the frieze around the central pavilion, designed by Philip Witcomb, with green pillars and red lanterns. The glittering costumes are also his, Wu in scarlet and gold, Xiao in rainbow stripes.

The real nightingale may look a dull bird but he perches upon, and is manipulated by, Tomasin Trezise playing the most elegantly blossoming tree. I cannot be as complimentary about its song. The point of the story is that while a nightingale looks drab, it has the loveliest voice. Paul Kissaum’s music for the creature isn’t remotely charming.

Duffield’s story also needs a more pronounced challenge and source of conflict than the simple need to persuade the evil Chief Mandarin that the nightingale exists. Perhaps this is less of a problem for an audience aged between five and seven, aware of how stupidly stubborn grown-ups can be, but it contributes to a slackening pace in the second half.

Masks enable six actors to play many parts. Mark Meadows sports dangerous eyebrows as the villain, and joins Sebastian Bates and Amanda Hadingue as one of a troop of merrily thieving monkeys. Peter Caulfield’s Wu is too droopy until he starts losing his temper, and Louise Clayton’s Xiao begins her speeches at too high a pitch so that she’s left with nowhere to go. But the show’s colour, the comic bits and that dragon satisfy a young audience.