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Watermill Theatre - A Bunch of Amateurs

22nd May to 28th June 2014.

Review from Newbury Theatre.

The play within a play, actors playing actors – it’s a long theatrical tradition, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream through to Noises Off and The Play That Goes Wrong, not forgetting the Farndale Avenue plays, a favourite with amdram groups. Now A Bunch of Amateurs by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman has joined the procession.

Ageing Hollywood A-lister Jefferson Steel thinks he’s been booked to play King Lear with the RSC but when he gets to England he discovers he’s signed up for an amateur production at Stratford in Suffolk. When he’s unable to get out of it, tantrums follow but Dorothy the director almost gets him under control.

The comedy of the play comes from the culture shock, on both sides, when Brits meet Yanks, the deflation of the egos of the more diva-like pros and amateurs, and the relationships that build up among the cast (we all know, don’t we, about the sexual shenanigans that go on in amdram groups – allegedly).

Mitchell Mullen, as Jefferson, is a loud blustering bully – in fact, a typical Hollywood star. As the play progresses and the bluster subsides, a gentler side emerges; a very sympathetic performance. Jackie Morrison plays his adversary Dorothy as calm and sensible, always in control and doing the right thing. She has the measure of Jefferson, and without her nothing would get done.

The other thespians are Damian Myerscough as Nigel, with some nice physical humour, Sarah Moyle as Mary, dotty about Jefferson and with a wonderfully expressive face and Michael Hadley as the pompous OTT ham Nigel – overcoming with difficulty his disappointment at not being Lear; very repressed, very British.

The final two in the main cast are Emily Bowker as PR lady Lauren and Eleanor Brown as Jefferson’s daughter Jessica, but the cast is augmented by some (real) amateur actors, recruited locally by the Watermill.

It’s not a farce, but there are some very funny lines and situations. After reading Lear for the first time, Jefferson says, “I have some issues – it needs a rewrite… and a happy ending” (and it inadvertently gets an ending that would have surprised Shakespeare). To a cast chronically beset by absences, Dorothy produces a laptop and announces, “The Duke of Cornwall has sprained his ankle but will be joining us on Skype”. And the three different versions of Gloucester being blinded are hugely funny, but not for the squeamish.

The Watermill is an ideal setting for the barn where the production takes place, and Tim Rogers’ set has cleverly folding-out sections on either side for breakfast room and bedroom, which make for some slick scene changes (accompanied by some haunting singing by the cast of some of Shakespeare’s songs). Judging by the audience reaction, director Caroline Leslie has created a very popular production.

This is a production that will appeal to almost all ages (there’s some strong language) and I’m sure it will be a huge hit with the many amdram groups that flourish in the Newbury area. If you found the recent NT Live production of King Lear a bit long and heavy, A Bunch of Amateurs is a lot shorter and funnier.


Review from the Newbury Weekly News.

Sending up the luvvies

Hilarious stage adaptation of movie from Hislop and Newman

A Bunch of Amateurs, at The Watermill, Bagnor, from Thursday, May 22 to Saturday, June 28

"You may think you're sitting in an old barn," says Dorothy Nettle (Jackie Morrison) pleading for support to save the Stratford Players' small theatre. Obviously then, The Watermill with its wooden beams was the ideal place for the world stage premiere of A Bunch of Amateurs, a collaboration between Ian Hislop and Nick Newman, resulting in a gloriously funny play which has the audience laughing from start to finish.

Based on an original story by Jonathan Gershfield and John Ross, the successful film was chosen by the Queen for a family showing. For this translation to theatre, Hislop and Newman abandoned the screenplay and started again.

The story of fading Hollywood star Jefferson Steel (Mitchell Mullen) tricked by his agent into taking part in a small amateur dramatic company's production of King Lear was always going to be a winner. Instead of Stratford-on-Avon, Jefferson finds himself in Suffolk where the crumbling theatre is on the brink of closing.

Anyone involved in am-dram will recognise the characters - placatory director Dorothy Nettle, anxious to please but putting her foot in it. Mary Plunkett (Sarah Moyle), Nigel Dewbury (Michael Hadley) convinced he should be playing Lear and Denis Dobbins (Damian Myerscough) septic tank unblocker and the one who gets to hook his eyes out (hilarious).

Into this mix is added Jefferson's estranged feisty daughter Jessica (Eleanor Brown) and the sponsor's beautiful wife Lauren (Emily Bowker). It is Lauren who precipitates disaster when landlady Mary gets the wrong idea, seeing her give physio to Jefferson who has injured his back.

This cast, aided by amateur actors from the local community, get it absolutely right. The be-cardiganed, flowery-dressed Sarah Moyle and down to earth Damian Myerscough are masters of the one liners - and there are plenty of them. As the 'recovering serial philanderer' Mitchell Mullen is excellent - his solution to improve Shakespeare: "re-write, cut two acts, give it a happy ending", Jackie Morrison is superb as the put-upon director and Michael Hadley is self-glorification personified as jealous Nigel.

Interspersed by snatches of musical Shakespearean comment on events and directed by Caroline Leslie, this play, presented in association with Trademark Films, will delight many future audiences. Treat yourself, forget the rain which raineth every day, see this Hislop/Newman triumph and laugh instead.


Review from The Times.

two stars
Although this is Ian Hislop and Nick Newman’s first comedy for the stage, it has a strong hint of the familiar. Writing partners since long before Hislop made his first cutting comment on Have I Got News For You, they have based this show on their own screenplay about an ageing Hollywood action star who comes to England to star in an am-dram production of King Lear. Whether or not you’ve seen the film, from 2008, you’ll be able to guess too much of what happens next.

The writers say they have fed their unhappy experience of working with Burt Reynolds on the film into the play. Yet their fish out of water, Jefferson Steel, still comes across as generically starry. This burly bully fails to learn his lines, demands rewrites on King Lear and generally fails to recognise he is not in Los Angeles any more. The star-struck Brits are equally broad.

Perhaps we should blame John Ross and Jonathan Gershfield, who thought up the original story. After all, Hislop and Newman can write a great line. When a prickly castmate urges Jefferson to play Shakespeare like Olivier or Gielgud did, Jefferson instead opts to play it “like someone who is still alive”. Jefferson, known for playing Jack Finality in the Ultimate Finality films, demands a breakfast of guava juice and “egg-white frittata”.

Against nice details such as that, though, we get the strictly sitcom psychology of the besotted landlady who first keeps confusing Jefferson for Bruce or Arnie or Clint then, groan, mistakes his physio session with a local woman for a fellatio session. It’s hard to care whether this prissy bunch raise the money they need to keep their theatre open, harder still to believe that Jefferson really signed up to this enterprise believing he was going to Stratford-upon-Avon rather than (the fictional) Stratford St John in Suffolk.

Still, the cast of seven are game and skilful and sing beautifully in the snatches of Shakespeare songs that bookend scenes in Caroline Leslie’s spirited production. The grizzled, charismatic Mitchell Mullen sells us Jefferson’s intransigence in the first half and his softening in the second, Michael Hadley is sharp as the envious, prickly Nigel — a Kent who longs to be a Lear — while Eleanor Brown makes a strong debut as Jefferson’s estranged daughter. Plenty of people around me appeared to succumb to it, but I was left straight-faced by a show that feels too much like shooting fish in a barrel.


Review from The Daily Telegraph.

three stars
As the setting for a gentle English comedy, the Watermill Theatre could scarcely be improved. The pretty jewel-box of an auditorium occupies an idyllic setting in the Berkshire village of Bagnor, standing in gardens notable for a host of friendly fowl and an elegant duck house that any MP would be proud to add to his expenses claims.

Ian Hislop and Nick Newman’s comedy about a village drama group was originally conceived as a film staring Burt Reynolds, Derek Jacobi and Imelda Staunton. It was selected for the Royal Film Performance in November 2008, where the Queen apparently enjoyed it so much that she had it shown at that year’s Christmas celebrations at Sandringham.

Nick Newman remarks in a programme note that, “As a piece about the redemptive power of theatre, Amateurs is perhaps more powerful and appropriate on the stage than on the screen”. More powerful, perhaps. Certainly more risky for the cast, who face the tricky task of giving good performances of bad acting without the filmic safety-net of repeated takes and technical wizardry.

The plot runs on the mixture of simplicity and implausibilty that fuels all farce. Facing the loss of their community theatre, an amateur dramatic group from the Suffolk village of Stratford St John decides that their only hope is to cast a celebrity in their final production. To their astonishment, ageing Hollywood action hero Jefferson Steel (Mitchell Mullen) accepts the role of King Lear.

But when the great man arrives in his flying jacket and aviator shades, it turns out that his agent has confused Stratford St John with the other Stratford. Jefferson thinks he will be treading the boards at the RSC and is peeved, to put it mildly, when his list of demands is briskly nixed by his director, Dorothy (Jackie Morrison), who produces a mobility scooter in place of the requested limo.

Tantrums, huffs and sexual imbroglios abound, complicated by the arrival of Jefferson’s estranged daughter, Jessica, whose presence provides a Lear-ish sub-plot and a two-hanky finale. Eleanor Brown as Steel’s powerfully disgruntled offspring brings much-need grit to a production that tends to rely on a not altogether well founded belief in its own charm. Morrison and Mullen do their best to sparkle, but are undermined by sluggish direction. But with a nippier turn of foot, this could be an engaging evening’s entertainment.


Review from British Theatre Guide.

Newbury’s Watermill Theatre had a world stage première with Ian Hislop and Nick Newman’s A Bunch of Amateurs and it is a hilarious witty comedy that had the audience laughing out loud from the very beginning.

It was originally a successful 2008 British comedy film starring Burt Reynolds, Samantha Bond, David Jacobi and Imelda Staunton that received a gala opening attended by her Majesty the Queen.

In this new cracking stage version, it has been lovingly recreated for the intimate Watermill’s stage and it fizzes along with verve and energy.

Mitchell Mullin is splendid as the fading Hollywood action hero Jefferson Steele. His USA agent is keen to bolster his ebbing career and has managed to secure him a part as King Lear in Stratford.

Unfortunately this is not in the hometown of the Bard but in a tranquil Suffolk village and the cast are all well meaning amateurs.

The Council is about to close the barn it uses as a theatre to build executive homes which more than echoes the plight that the Watermill faced several years ago and, according to Ian, he had written this start to “bring a smile to Hedda Beeby”—the current Artistic and Executive Director.

For anyone who has trod the boards, there may well be ripples of memories as the acerbic infighting, tantrums and bickering engulf this amateur group.

Jackie Morrison is wonderful as the Director Dorothy Nettle, determined to save the society by bringing a Hollywood star to boost sales and donations whilst trying to pour oil on troubled waters with the rest of the cast.

But pompous Jefferson is furious at being duped, insisting that his agent gets him out of his predicament whilst demanding his trailer and limo.

He ends up at Mary Plunkett’s B and B where a full English breakfast is shunned for the unobtainable guava juice and skinny latte. Sarah Moyle is delightful as Mary who is in awe of Jefferson’s star status whilst playing the part of Goneril.

Michael Hadley plays the frightfully ‘over the top’ Nigel Dewbury perfectly. He is not at all pleased at being usurped from playing the lead role and constantly makes himself available for the part as it becomes obvious that Jefferson can’t act.

Bringing us down to earth is Damian Myerscough as the hilarious local plumber Denis, who is also the health and safety officer and becomes Jefferson’s “entourage” whilst struggling to come up with an idea of how to achieve the effect of blinding Gloucester.

The arrival of Jefferson’s estranged daughter Jessica, the spirited Eleanor Brown, all teenage angst and furious at her father for forgetting to collect her from the airport, causes further chaos.

Emily Bowker is the glamorous sponsor's PR Lauren Bell who ends up in a misunderstood compromising situation when giving physiotherapy to Jefferson.

There are some beautiful songs from Lear’s Fool composed by Paul Herbert and Tom Roger’s set is impressively inventive.

Directed with skill and aplomb by Caroline Leslie, this is a thoroughly enjoyable production and the audience loved it.

During the interval, Ian Hislop told me, “I am thrilled to get a full stage version of the play, where I think it belongs and show what theatre can do for the community.”


There are reviews from theatreCat (Libby Purves) ("an evening of raging, pathos, bathos, and fine old-fashioned farcical fun... there’s a lot of love gone into this production" - 4 stars), The Stage ("a delightfully funny take on professional meets amateur theatre... some hugely funny one-liners verging on farce in the best possible way"), WhatsOnStage ("terrific comedy packed with killer comic dialogue... the evening is a total and mounting delight" - 5 stars), the Oxford Times ("a hilarious play full of colourful archetypes, much visual as well as verbal humour and the funniest ‘blasted heath’ scene you will see... I highly recommend this amiable show to anyone who is hankering after a good laugh"), The Good Review ("nicely paced and well cast, with strong acting performances throughout").