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Watermill Theatre - A Little History of the World

14th to 25th July 2015 and on tour.

Review from Newbury Theatre.

Ernst Gombrich, an Austrian, wrote A Little History of the World in six weeks in 1935, aiming it at young people. The six week deadline, set by his publisher, was challenging but he achieved it, producing 40 chapters. The English translation didn’t appear until 2005, and Toby Hulse has turned it into this play.

To pack the history of the world into an hour and a half, Hulse has clearly needed to be selective with his topics, but nevertheless we get to see the origin of the universe, Neanderthal man and the exploitation of fire, the development of language and writing, the Greeks, the Romans, chivalry, the crusades, the Renaissance, the age of enlightenment, the industrial revolution and World War 1.

Alasdair Buchan plays Ernst as an enormously enthusiastic academic, spreading his enthusiasm to his initially sceptical publisher and childhood friend Otto (Richard Ede) and his pupil Ilse (Jess Mabel Jones). Strong acting performances from all three.

It’s a very physical and fast-paced production, with the three acting out the scenes from history. There are some lovely comic touches – I particularly liked the silhouette operation by Leonardo and the frenetically choreographed industrial revolution.

The play also brings out the growing attraction between Ernst and Ilse (later to become his wife), and hits a more serious note when some of the triumphalist scenes draw a comparison with the growing Nazi menace. Ernst fled to Britain in 1939 after his book had been banned by the Nazis.

Reading Rep’s production, directed by Paul Stacey, has been on tour around local villages and is a great show for youngsters and grownups alike. Victoria Spearing’s shabby office set worked well, and a special mention should go to lighting designer Simeon Miller’s very effective (and very complex) lighting plot.


Review from the British Theatre Guide and the Newbury Weekly News.

Ripping ride through time

World premiere of 'Our Story' deserves London transfer

A Little History of the World, at The Watermill, Bagnor, until Saturday, July 25

Reading Rep is an innovative professional theatre company that recently became an associate company of The Watermill. Its debut performance at the theatre is a wonderful inventive adaption of E H Gombrich’s A Little History of the World skilfully adapted by Toby Hulse.

This world première is a sheer joy, an absolute gem, performed by a highly talented cast who revel in the playfulness of creating characters and are consummate storytellers.

The play begins in Vienna in 1935 in the study of Ernst, outstandingly portrayed by Alasdair Buchan, who is a penniless writer desperate for a new commission. His publisher Otto, superbly played by Richard Ede offers Ernst the opportunity to translate a book into German.

Instead Ernst proposes to write a new book, “the history of the world” in a mere six weeks, putting himself under immense pressure to meet the deadline.

Jess Mabel Jones impressively captures the character of Ilse who encourages Ernst in his endeavours by weekly visits and eventually becomes his wife.

Every story begins with, “once upon a time” and as this is “our story, the story of what we call the history of the world” the cast stop the action and ask, “where, how and when did this happen?”

And so we get whistle stop adventures describing the evolution of the world from the Neanderthals through to the contribution that the Greeks made and then the Romans — I loved the reference to “straight thinking” which is really funny.

We swiftly move through the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment to the French revolution.

Reaching the Industrial Revolution, we experience a beautifully choreographed piece of physical theatre that was pure pantomime and had the audience applauding at the cast’s dexterity.

There is a classic hilarious shadow “hospital operation” that makes you laugh out loud which contrasts with the horrors of the First World War in a poignant, emotive scene complete with falling poppies.

The state of the economy is brilliantly explored but with hope for a better future.

Designer Victoria Spearing's detailed set with cut-away timbered frames in the background and littered with objects d’art and a desk that doubles as many locations works exceedingly well.

Max Pappenheim’s tantalising sound design, together with Simeon Miller’s atmospheric lighting, perfectly complements the action.

Paul Stacey’s inspired direction keeps the piece moving at a cracking pace. This is a highly enjoyable production that deserves a longer run and perhaps a London transfer. Highly recommended.


Review from The Times (paywall).

Our story in two acts

four stars
Before he was a British intellectual personality, EH Gombrich was a penniless post-doctoral student in Vienna in 1935. Earning a few schillings from a publisher, Gombrich set up as a translator — until he declared the first book sent to him too intellectually shoddy to be worth his time.

And so we watch his publisher friend Otto (Richard Ede) tear his hair out as Ernst (Alasdair Buchan) walks us through his alternative publishing proposal, a complete intellectual history of the world, written for children, to be completed in six weeks. Some ambition — although of course it was hit. Jess Mabel Jones adds a glorious energy as Gombrich’s future wife Ilse and with this talented trio at the helm, we’re in for a cute, inventive and joyous walk through European cultural history.

That’s definitely European history — despite the universalist title — but our cast aren’t shy of interrogating Gombrich’s more conservative assumptions. Those who adored Gombrich as a Cold War warrior, a humanist classical liberal, will glance askance at the Marxist-Leninism given full reign in the writer Toby Hulse’s satire on American capitalism. However, it is true to Gombrich’s early work and to the long shadow of a malnourished childhood in the wake of the First World War.

Yet while there’s darkness here, there’s also much light. Clambering up ladders, tumbling through sword fights, Jones excels at physical comedy and she has able partners in Ede and Buchan’s bombastic elasticity.

There’s something of the Reduced Shakespeare Company in this show and at times the odd detail of history can feel sloppy (it’s but a slip of the tongue, but Franz Ferdinand was fairly certainly the Austrian Emperor’s nephew, not his son). Yet in the Watermill Theatre’s bucolic setting, ducks nesting by the river, it’s impossible not to enjoy an evening’s feisty storytelling. Take your teenagers.


There are reviews from The Stage ("inspirational teaming of the Watermill and Reading Rep delivers remarkable production" - 5 stars), WhatsOnStage ("a perfect summer holiday family treat" - 4 stars) and DailyInfo ("one of the most downright lovable and playful productions I have ever seen").