Watermill - Martin Guerre
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Watermill - Martin Guerre

11th July to 1st September 2007.

From The Times.

Three stars
Small is beautiful, and in this revised, chamber version of the ill-starred Boublil & Schönberg melodrama you catch an authentic whiff of a cramped, grubby and culturally claustrophobic 16th-century village. While Craig Revel Horwood’s hugely attractive staging stops short of depositing period manure on the boards, the oak-beam ambience of the Watermill makes an ideal setting for a musical that delves into one of the murkier eras of French history.

Diego Pitarch’s minuscule set is more evocative than many a mighty West End edifice. Add an exceptionally hard-working cast of a dozen actor-musicians, and the result is an intimate spectacle that has the demotic energy of a market square entertainment mounted by a band of travelling players.

That said, all the artistry and all the rewrites in the world cannot disguise the fact that the show that Cameron Mackintosh first brought to the West End a decade ago is crippled by a number of central weaknesses, chief among them a leaden, pseudo-operatic score that limps from one faux-anthem to another, the actors obliged to mouth pedestrian lyrics that sound as if they have been downloaded from an Eighties prototype of a bilingual software program. One earnest platitude follows another, dispensing fortune-cookie wisdom along the lines of: “A woman wants to love.” Dramatically speaking, too, there is a vacuum where the lead roles should be. Andrew Bevis, Ben Goddard and Kelly O’Leary turn in fine performances in the sectarian love triangle involving a long-vanished husband, his wife and his alleged impersonator. But the characters, as written, do not amount to more than the thinnest of ciphers. No surprise, then, that the second act denouement never generates the slightest frisson.

Thankfully, the sterling ensemble playing and the understated musicianship go a long way towards camouflaging the flaws. James Traherne supplies a brooding presence as the Protestant-hating patriarch. Johnson Willis makes the most of the frustratingly underwritten part of the fool, Benoit. Sarah Travis’s uncluttered arrangements – excellently performed on a battery of instruments ranging from muted trumpet to cello and clarinet – are a constant delight. Even so, while followers of Boublil & Schönberg will want to see this latest attempt at a resurrection, there is no sign of a happy ending.

CLIVE DAVIS

From the Evening Standard.

C'est magnifique and yes, it is la guerre

Try as they might, internationally successful composing duo Alain Boubil and Claude-Michel Schonberg have so far struggled to get Martin Guerre (1996) to join its elder siblings Les Misérables and Miss Saigon in their pantheon of musicals. The show was extensively revised even as it played in the West End - and it has been reworked once more for this new outing.

How delightful, then, to report that all these tinkerings have come to glorious fruition. Director/choreographer Craig Revel Horwood, of Strictly Come Dancing fame, explains in a programme note that he visualises Guerre as a "chamber piece". Thirty actors have been reduced to 12 actor-musicians, and the score rearranged by keyboardist Sarah Travis, the brains behind many other Watermill triumphs.

This stripping-down process proves revelatory, as warm, luxurious melodies and stirring lyrics flow from the largely through-sung score. I didn't come out humming any of the tunes but I know that after one more listen they'll be firmly embedded.

Revel Horwood was absolutely right to assume the dual roles, as he makes the movement integral to the increasingly acrimonious action. The multitalented ensemble - who give a firm statement of intent with the rousing opening number Working on the Land - make a tremendous impact as a horde of permanently clamouring villagers, lending vocal support to both sides of the Catholic-Protestant clash that is engulfing late 16th-century France.

At the forefront of this debate stands Bertrande (Kelly O'Leary), forced to marry an unwilling Martin (Andrew Bevis) to safeguard Catholic land. What striking stage pictures Revel Horwood creates, as Bertrande huddles anxiously over her cello, cradling it like the baby she craves, and Martin thrashes impotently at a cymbal.

O'Leary is particularly sweet-voiced, and makes lovely music with Ben Goddard as the man who returns after a seven-year absence claiming to be Martin. The battle has been won - the Guerre, too. The West End should demand to see the results.

FIONA MOUNTFORD

From the Guardian.

Three stars
The tiny Watermill has never been afraid of squeezing a gallon into a pint pot. But while director Craig Revel Horwood makes the case that less is more in presenting this return of the soldier musical as a chamber piece, it goes against the grain of the overblown romanticism of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg's works, such as Les Miserables and Miss Saigon.

Martin Guerre was inspired by the 16th-century trial of a man who committed identity theft by claiming to be the husband of Bertrande de Rois, a woman whose partner had abandoned her years before. But it just doesn't hold together: this is a piece that aspires to tackle religious division - Bertrande and her impostor husband's conversion to Protestantism brings about their downfall - and the metaphysical nature of self, but every time it is about to get interesting, it sinks back into heaving bosoms and lingering looks.

Mind you, you can see why Bertrande is so attracted to her new mate: despite the complete absence of personality, he is a considerate lover and a walking DIY manual. Presumably, every time she has doubts about whether he is who he says he is, she just lies back and thinks about the new shelving in the kitchen.

This would be strictly one for the Les Mis fans were it not for a production and cast who once again demonstrate why the Watermill deserves its place high on the roster of British regional theatres. They go at it full pelt, and if nobody has much to work on in the way of character, the production cuts the oversweet lushness and gives the occasional glimpse of the spare tragedy this might have been.

LYN GARDNER

From Newbury Theatre.

There’s a world of difference between a West End musical and a Watermill musical. The West End offers space, glitz and spectacle; the Watermill offers an intimacy and immediacy that is hard to match. Martin Guerre, by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg is the latest actor/musician musical to squeeze onto the Watermill’s stage, and at times I felt – as I never have with the Watermill’s other musicals – that the stage was too small for the production.

The plot, based on a true story, is rather thin, dealing with mistaken identity, religious prejudice in the 16th century, deception and a court case. The music is pleasant but unmemorable (true of many modern musicals), so its success all depends on the actors and the director. And this is where the Watermill comes into its own; with good actors and direction, the audience gets sucked into the action, becomes a part of the village, and the enthusiasm and energy of the actors shines through. It was an impressive cast, with strong performances from Andrew Bevis as Martin, Ben Goddard as the impostor Arnaud and Jez Unwin as baddie Guillaume.

Good fun with the women too, with a very funny – and bawdy – version of Sleeping on Our Own. Director and choreographer Craig Revel Horwood’s background is in dance, and this showed in the impressive choreography. Sarah Travis was once again musical arranger and, I think, playing the piano, although we didn’t see her; as usual the actors themselves provided the musical accompaniment.

If you’re a fan of musicals, you’ll want to see Martin Guerre, and if you liked Les Misérables you’ll like this.

PAUL SHAVE

From the Newbury Weekly News.

Not just good, it's Guerre-ate

Craig Revel Horwood directs a 'cracker' of a show at The Watermill

Martin Guerre, at The Watermill, until September 1

Take a musical based on a genuine 16th century French court case of stolen identity, add director Craig Revel Horwood, Sarah Travis in charge of music and mix with 12 actor/musicians of outstanding ability and what do you get? A powerful, dynamic, cracker of a show, equal to the best of The Watermill's productions.

As Sarah Travis said in the talkback, the original production of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg's musical had a traumatic 10-year life, but this is half the length of the original and focuses directly on the story.

The fragile young Bertrande (Kelly O'Leary) is urged by Catholics in the small village of Artigat to marry Martin (Andrew Bevis), who leaves her to go soldiering for seven years. When he becomes a victim of war, his friend Arnaud (Ben Goddard, who had to lose three stone to become a lookalike for Bevis) goes to Artigat to tell Bertrande, but, having been mistaken for Martin, assumes his identity. He and Bertrande fall in love, but the religious hatred between the Protestants and Catholics leads to discovery. More of the story I will not say.

Nor will I describe the amazingly atmospheric set created under the old beams of the mill by Diego Pitarch for it is best that those wise enough to buy tickets come to it unawares.

While this is a love story, it contains much that is hilarious, particularly from a trio of rumbustious village women (Karen Mann, Rosie Timpson, Susannah Van Den Berg) who switch
between being gossips and viragos and who join the men in an exuberant, mesmerising, almost show-stopping clog dance which has Revel Horwood magic written all over it.

The immense amount of music has been re-scored by Sarah Travis for the 16 instruments, played by the 12 actors - if you can tear yourself away from the story, it is incredible to see different players imperceptibly taking over the same instrument.

There are intense and compelling performances from each and every actor/musician and the direction is done so cleverly and with such vision using not only the actors, but their silhouettes, so that if the action were frozen at any point you would have a perfect mediaeval picture.

Martin Guerre is not just good, it's terrific.

CAROLINE FRANKLIN

There is a review at The Stage ("the Watermill Theatre has once again exceeded all expectations... full of passion, emotive contrasts and high energy... remarkable talents of the actor/musician cast").