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Watermill Theatre - The Wicker Husband

12th March to 4th April 2020

Review from Newbury Theatre.

I was going to start this review by saying that The Wicker Husband is one of the most unusual and interesting plays you will see this year but it looks as though the Watermill will close soon so you may not have the chance. Hopefully it will return later.

The play is about how we deal with outsiders, people who don’t fit in with our social group, and how to be kind to them. The Ugly Girl is an outsider, catching and gutting fish and selling them in the village. The villagers (the cobbler, the tailor, the innkeeper and their wives) despise her because she’s poor, on her own and – in their eyes – ugly. She meets the Old Basketmaker, another outsider who lives in his workshop with his wicker dog, Basket, and she persuades him to make her a wicker husband.

When the Ugly Girl appears with her husband, he has a startling effect on the villagers; first admiration then conflict, leading to her rejection again.

And, and, and… so much to say about the production. First, it’s a musical with a team of actor/musicians as you’d expect at the Watermill but with the instruments played more in the wings and less in-your-face that in other productions. It’s described as a ‘folk-inspired musical’ and the songs are quite folky, with music and clever lyrics by Darren Clark, all sung with great clarity.

Then it’s a puppet show. With the leading man a wicker puppet, manipulated and voiced by two puppeteers, Eilon Morris and Yazdan Qafouri. We’ve seen this before in War Horse, but here he can talk and sing as well as dance. As well as him there’s Basket the dog, very fetchingly manipulated by Scarlet Wilderink, and various other characters including a cat and a king-size lark. The puppets were built in a short timescale, starting six weeks before rehearsals, and the results and the skill of the puppeteers are outstanding.

As Ugly Girl, Laura Johnson sang well and brought pathos to the part. The Old Basketmaker, Julian Forsyth, had a powerful presence and a strong singing voice. The villagers were an unpleasant group, bringing much of the comedy to the play. In particular, Zoë Rainey as the Tailor’s Wife was two-faced and duplicitous and would have got some boos if this were a pantomime.

Anna Kelsey’s set dominated by a huge willow tree went well with the Watermill’s bucolic surroundings.

The Wicker Husband, written by Rhys Jennings, is based on a short story by Ursula Wills-Jones; Jennings and director Charlotte Westenra has been involved with it for most of its nine-year gestation period. The end result is a lively, funny, intriguing production and I hope you have the chance to see it.

PAUL SHAVE

Review from The Times.

four stars
A fun and bawdy fairytale for adults

A tweak here, a tweak there. Watching the world premiere of Rhys Jennings and Darren Clark’s musical — a fairytale aimed more at adults than children — is a reminder of just how much labour goes into creating a new show. There’s much to enjoy in Charlotte Westenra’s production, and even if all the elements aren’t yet quite in place, we catch a glimpse of something special.

Clark’s music, first of all, is great fun. The story about an Ugly Girl (that’s her name, by the way), who is ostracised by villagers and finds love with a handsome fellow created by a kindly basketmaker, is told through folk songs that are a mix of Bellowhead and Jethro Tull. They reminded me, too, of that long-running off-Broadway institution The Fantasticks. The storyline may seem childlike on the surface, but Clark’s lyrics can be bawdy too. And the combination of Pat Moran’s ultra-compact onstage band and actor-musicians (a Watermill speciality) keeps the arrangements enjoyably loose.

Julian Forsyth, wearing a lush wig that gives him the air of a superannuated Naomi Wolf, brings gravitas and a fine voice to the role of the basketmaker. As the girl, Laura Johnson has a feral edge and vocals that are a distinctive mix of vinegar and sugar. Angela Caesar and Zoë Rainey lead a lively cast of village yokels who are cartoonishly stupid and venal, but not beyond redemption. (I could have done without the unsubtle dig at Brexiteers in the script, however.)

Energetic though they are, the humans are upstaged by Finn Caldwell’s superb puppets. The husband himself is a magical creation. He lives and breathes, and the scene where he is recovering from serious injury is genuinely moving. Comic relief comes from the old man’s impish dog, simply called Basket. Anna Kelsey’s set and Steven Harris’s choreography add atmosphere; so do Ella Wahlstrom’s sound design and Hartley TA Kemp’s lighting.

It’s the book that needs a little more work. Drawing on a short story by Ursula Wills-Jones, it offers unexpectedly daring asides about sexual jealousy, but the plotting is perfunctory at times — the central drama about an abandoned baby doesn’t have the force or clarity it requires. And all the characters would benefit from being drawn with a tad more light and shade if they are to win over adults. That said, if David Walliams’s The Boy in the Dress can end up on the RSC stage, this show — which is more rewarding — could go every bit as far.

CLIVE DAVIS

Review from the Guardian.

Puppets weave a feisty fable for our times

This folk musical about a lonely fisherwoman looking for love boldly puts a puppet in the role of the leading man

three stars
Just after many UK theatres announced indefinite closures on Monday night, Paul Hart, the Watermill’s artistic director, took to the stage to confirm that The Wicker Husband would go ahead as planned. The show-must-go-on moment carried the poignancy and weight of the impending interregnum of darkness.

A folk musical based on a short story by Ursula Wills-Jones but with a feistier ending, The Wicker Husband follows a lonely fisherwoman, derisively named Ugly Girl by villagers and ostracised for being a misfit. She makes friends with a basket-weaver who, like a rustic Dr Frankenstein, has the power to weave beings into creation. He weaves her a wicker husband and this union sparks sexual jealousies and tribal antipathies among the townsfolk.

As a story about insider parochialism, the demonising of outsiders and the tyranny of conformity in village life, it bears echoes of Brexit Britain. But the musical – which has a book by Rhys Jennings – steers away from outright parallels on the whole. It is located in a world of yokel archetypes (characters are simply named Tailor, Cobbler, Old Basketmaker, etc), and has all the fabular edges of a children’s folk tale. “Once upon a withy on the edge of a deep dark swamp,” the cast sings.

The only open reference to today comes towards the end when the town’s evil plan against Ugly Girl (Laura Johnson) is foiled. “You said we’d take back control,” says the Cobbler to the Tailor’s Wife.

There are magical moments in The Wicker Husband yet weaknesses, too: characterisation is so flat that the villagers are dastardly to the point of cartoonishness. There are affecting lyrics but some of the “diddly-di” ditties lack depth, though the Cobbler’s Wife (Angela Caesar) lifts her lines with her bawdy, no-nonsense deliveries.

What brings Charlotte Westenra’s production flaring to life is Darren Clark’s balladic music, strong singing voices and lively musicianship (guitars, violins, a whistle, and live sound effects). Johnson as Ugly Girl brings emotional drama to her songs, from the romantic yearning in My Wicker Man to Have You Seen My Husband when catastrophe strikes her wicker lover.

Other cast members do the same: Julian Forsyth as the Old Basketmaker has an unfortunate comic resemblance to Worzel Gummidge but he sings with plaintive power; and the otherwise conniving Tailor’s Wife (Zoë Rainey) wrings sadness from a song about the loss of her baby.

It is a bold move to cast a puppet in a lead part and the handsome, six-foot “wicker husband” puppet designed by Finn Caldwell is a beguiling presence, with flowers growing from his weave and a childlike gaucheness combined with romantic devotion to Ugly Girl. (Puppeteers Yazdan Qafouri, Eilon Morris and Scarlet Wilderink manipulate him and speak his lines.)

There is a charming menagerie of animals, too, including scuttling mice, a skylark and a tail-wagging dog, all made of wicker. It is these puppets that steal the show.

ARIFA AKBAR

Review from the British Theatre Guide.

Receiving its world première this week, The Watermill Theatre’s magical production of The Wicker Husband is an absolute delight. It’s performed with energy and panache from a wonderfully multi-talented cast of actor-musicians whose enthusiasm is a joy to watch.

It’s an inspiring, uplifting folk musical based on a short story by Ursula Will-Jones where outsiders are ostracised by the villagers and in particular the poor fish seller whom they call the Ugly Girl, an impressive portrayal by Laura Johnson.

She find solace from the willow tree by the river where she confines her innermost thoughts whilst catching and gutting her fish. But her life is to change forever when a wicker dog called Basket steals her catch and she meets the Old Basket Maker, an outstanding, powerful performance by Julian Forsyth, who commands the stage and agrees to weave her a loving wicker husband.

As a life-sized puppet designed and built by Finn Caldwell (War Horse) and skilfully operated by Eilon Morris and Scarlet Wilderick and voiced by Yazdan Qafouri, who sings beautifully, the Wicker Man is meticulously brought to life and the marriage is arranged.

The jealous villagers plan a vicious plot to thwart the love that the Ugly Girl feels for her Wicker Husband with disastrous results.

Zoë Rainey is the elegant Tailor’s Wife who has lost her baby but considers herself to be a class above the villagers, whilst her husband (Jack Beale) is very much under her thumb and longs to escape her dominance.

Angela Caesar is the vivacious Cobbler’s Wife whose assertive husband (Stephen Leask) is determined to create havoc to the couple, as the Innkeeper (Jonathan Charles) and his wife (Claire-Marie Hall) join in the hatred of the Ugly Girl and her new found happiness.

The music and lyrics by Darren Clark conjure up a rich tapestry of ballads and uplifting soaring chorus numbers, all superbly performed by the accomplished cast under the on-stage direction of MD Pat Moran and Jon Whitten.

There is so much to enjoy in this exuberant production from the striking choreography by Steven Harris to the rustic pastoral design by Anna Kelsey with atmospheric lighting by Hartley T A Kemp.

Directed with verve and élan by Charlotte Westenra, this joyous production thoroughly deserved its spontaneous audience standing ovation.

Sadly, the current coronavirus resulting in the closure of theatres has meant that audiences will miss this moving production. Hopefully it will be able to be re-scheduled and it’s not to be missed.

ROBIN STRAPP

Review from the Newbury Weekly News

Watermill world premiere

A great production forced to close by Covid-19 just six days into run

The Wicker Husband, at The Watermill, Bagnor, on Monday, March 16

Where better to stage the world premiere of a play which takes place in a pretty village with a river and willow trees than The Watermill theatre in Bagnor?

The Wicker Husband, written by Rhys Jennings, with music and lyrics by Darren Clark, is based on a short story by Ursula Wills-Jones and was an evening of pure delight, full of songs, dance, action and emotion.

It is set in a pretty village where everything is pretty – pretty people, buildings, river – all is pretty… except for one person.

The tradesmen of this pretty village and their pretty wives despise the person they call Ugly Girl (an outstandingly enjoyable performance from Laura Johnson), who sells fish for a living. Mocked and treated badly, Ugly Girl’s only friend is the willow tree to whom she confides her wish for a husband.

She visits an old basketmaker (superbly played and sung by Julian Forsyth) and begs him to make her a wicker husband. The scene in his workshop with Basket the wicker dog and the wicker animals he brings to life was fantastic, although it was sometimes difficult to see the action taking place at floor level.

The puppetry and manipulation required to make Wicker Husband believable was something to marvel at. Puppetry designer/director Finn Caldwell, whose long and impressive CV includes his work on War Horse, brought the Wicker Man, and ‘Lady Blackthorn’, who finally vanquishes the vindictive jealous wife of the tailor, to vivid life.

For when Ugly Girl and her Wicker Husband become close, the villagers are jealous and hatch a plot, part of which is to make Ugly Girl believe her husband has been unfaithful. A fire damages Wicker Man and leaves the grieving Ugly Girl in despair as she realises she has been tricked.

The tailor’s wife (a beautifully vicious performance from Zoe Rainey) persuades the basketmaker to make her a wicker baby to back up the lie. When it is finished with, her husband casts it into the river where Ugly Girl finds it and cares for it. Following a wonderfully impassioned song full of fury from the basketmaker singing to the villagers “what have you done with my children?” he creates the Lady Blackthorn puppet to extract revenge.

With the help of withies from the willow tree, Wicker Husband is mended and all ends happily.

This world premiere, directed by Charlotte Westenra, gave the audience an evening in which the entire cast of actors, musicians and puppeteers gave memorable performances.

At the start of the evening, artistic executive and director of The Watermill, Paul Hart, had thanked the cast for their work and the audience for coming to see the result in what are hard times for the theatre industry. It is safe to say that it was a very great pleasure.

CAROLINE FRANKLIN

There are reviews from WhatsOnStage ("beautiful and bewitching, fresh and entirely original musical - ★★★★★"), TheSpyInTheStalls "an evening of pure enchantment... highly recommended - ★★★★★").

There's an interesting article...

... by Tei Williams about the process in staging a Watermill production, from choosing the play through to the opening night. It's here.