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Watermill Theatre - The Hound of the Baskervilles

29th July to 6th September 2020

Review from The Daily Telegraph.

Socially-distanced al fresco Sherlock? Elementary!

four stars
In The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902), Arthur Conan Doyle resurrected Sherlock Holmes - having ventured to kill him off, to general dismay, some eight years earlier. In so doing, he created an infernal vision that has gripped the popular imagination ever since: a blood-thirsty moorland beast of dreadful aspect, given to chilling howls.

In a new version of Doyle’s much dramatised novel at the Watermill, Newbury, director Abigail Pickard Price and her team have – by contrast – rustled up a frolicsome spectacle of heavenly delight, one which in its own devil-may care, irreverent way is helping raise theatre from the dead. With the prospect of fully realised (and attended) indoor performances put on the back-burner for months more (at the risk, it seems, of snuffing out the sector), those venues with bucolic outdoor spaces are in the best position to claw their way out of the current nightmare scenario.

In a normal summer, the invitation to watch a show in the gardens of the Watermill – a hedge high and long, arboreal shelter, a stream within earshot and lots of waddling waterfowl – would be irresistible. In 2020, it feels still more so, as curative as a Covid vaccine.

Still, there’s something surreal and even a little unsettling about the set-up that has allowed the theatre to reopen after months of closure: health and safety signage abounds as much as the flora, and while trails of dinky outdoor lights delight the eye the sight of anti-bacterial spray doesn’t wholly escape it either.

In all, there are 20 tables, each seating a maximum party of four and set apart an orderly two metres, with food and drink brought to you. And the three-strong, period-dressed troupe are adhering to distancing markers on the makeshift stage as well.

It’s almost – yet not really – how things used to be, but this ambient peculiarity is used to augment the barking pleasure of the proceedings. Deriving theatrical mirth from a page-turning thriller and accentuating the daftness of attempting it on a shoestring isn’t new – indeed in 2007, anarchic theatre troupe Peepolykus’s spoof Baskervilles made it into the West End. Here, the need for a socially distanced Sherlock adds to the problem-solving fun, and reminds us of the innate glory of the art-form: whatever constraints you throw at it, creative ingenuity will prevail; the tighter the leash, the faster our imagination runs.

There’s an opening satirical nod to the bamboozling edicts of the Johnson government – the artistic guidance is read out in a Borissy way (“Learn the play but don’t feel like you need to have actually learnt the play”). Then – with the trio (Victoria Blunt, Rosalind Lailey and James Mack) synchro-squirting their hands with sanitiser gel – we’re into a 90-minute welter (plus interval) of manic character-switching and costume-changing, with arch narration, histrionic gasps and chorused hound-wails.

Laughably worlds removed from (say) Cumberbatch or Rathbone, each player strains to keep suitably apart from the others. Bits of paper get pretend-passed via sleight of hand, a plastic screen is found for a tête à tête, face-masks are donned for roving the grounds.

It’s ersatz amateurish but not remotely bumbling. Blunt and Lailey form a comically faultless gender-flipped double-act as Watson and Holmes, with Mack bringing hearty machismo to the fray and memorably-bathetically succumbing to a sack-cloth “hound”. Somehow, a vestigial sense of the original’s compulsive dread and darkness lingers, but the object of the exercise is an escapist lightness of touch. We may not stand a cat in hell’s chance of getting out of the pandemic crisis any time soon, but this stirring return of an old fictional friend, a much loved venue and the semblance of theatre-as-was at least puts us on the right trail.


Review from The Times.

Panto-like and delivered with tongue-in-cheek energy

four stars
Purists beware. You don’t need a magnifying glass to notice that, while this incarnation of Sherlock Holmes is equipped with a deerstalker, he has undergone a sex change. So has Dr Watson. But Abigail Pickard Price’s production is delivered with so much tongue-in-cheek energy that you can’t object (and I say that as someone who still squirms at the memory of Mark Gatiss’s TV rewrite of Dracula last Christmas). Besides, after months of lockdown, part of the pleasure of this show is simply being able to behave like normal theatregoers.

Well, almost. The Watermill’s auditorium remains out of bounds, so for this version of the Arthur Conan Doyle tale we were sitting at socially distanced tables outside on the lawn. The British weather chose not to be awkward (performances will go ahead whatever the conditions) and a group of swans added sound effects from the nearby pond. At the interval they even mounted an incursion among the audience. All in all, the setting was more redolent of Conan Doyle’s embarrassing encounters with fairies than Grimpen Mire.

The atmosphere wasn’t so far away from a summer version of panto, with the script devised by the company. There was the barest echo, too, of The Watsons, Laura Wade’s inspired deconstruction of the unfinished Jane Austen novel. Most of the jokes were broad, the acting even broader and, as Holmes and his companion, Rosalind Lailey and Victoria Blunt took great pleasure in poking fun at the improbable twists and turns. With James Mac completing the compact, multitasking cast, they swapped costumes and false beards and even managed to add an utterly redundant but enjoyable karaoke rendition of Stand By Me.

The story hustled along on a small stage adorned with only a few items of furniture and some wooden boxes (one of which functioned as a cajon drum to add sound effects). Sometimes the actors roamed around the tables. Naturally enough, there were gags about the 2m rule; Lailey and co also found ingenious ways of pretending to slap each other or pass around letters. Every now and then Blunt’s eminently level-headed doctor would take a sledgehammer to the fourth wall as she added scraps of narration and gothic nonsense. I’m pretty sure that the line “stuffed full of Jaffa cakes and self-loathing” doesn’t appear in the original text.

It’s one of the oddities of the story that Holmes himself is absent from the narrative for long stretches. Blunt took charge here too. True, the entry of the hound itself was a mild anticlimax. It didn’t really matter, though. Perhaps they should audition one of the swans.


Review from British Theatre Guide and the Newbury Wekly News.

Sherlock saves the summer season

Watermill's socially distnced theatre a first, pulling in sell-out crowds

The Hound of the Baskervilles, at The Watermill, Bagnor, until September 6

What a delight to be able to return to the Watermill Theatre following three months of lockdown. The auditorium is of course closed, so the performance is taking place in the beautiful gardens — and what a wonderful setting. The audience are seated at one of the twenty tables available, each within a socially distanced bubble, or perhaps that should that be white-painted square?

What a treat was in store. Based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles and devised by the company this spoof “corona virus edition” was a huge comedy caper, and tremendous fun. The perfect antidote to the virus.

The talented cast of three — Victoria Blunt, Rosalind Lailey and James Mack — are no strangers to The Watermill having performed in the theatre before and so know the venue well, which undoubtedly helps.

They have a wonderful rapport with the audience and make fun of the need for social distancing with each other. Even the stage is marked out in one metre squares that become the butt of many COVID-19 jokes, all part of the performance.

The simple raised set consisting of a coatstand with various costumes, hats and wooden boxes together with a large trunk are inventively used.

I loved the Perspex screen that arrived late so that the actors could perform closer together in a socially acceptable way.

It is remarkable that the whole production was put together in two weeks after the relaxation of lockdown restrictions, a first in the country, and it’s a sheer joy to watch, particularly if the weather is kind as it was on my visit.

Victoria Blunt is splendid as the bowler-hatted Dr Watson and Rosalind Lailey obviously relishes the part of Sherlock Holmes with James Mack as Dr James Mortimer and countless other characters. And they all play the gigantic hound — howling “Aaah Wooo” in a running gag throughout the show with more than a nod to pantomime.

They are summoned to Dartmoor to investigate the horrid murder of Sir Charles Baskerville, found face-down in the grounds with a look of utter horror on his face next to footprints of a gigantic hound. So, what about the curse? The “game's afoot!”

Each cast member plays myriad characters donning hats, beards and costumes and changing gender and voices to create the roles — all tongue-in-cheek fun which the audience loved, especially when things didn’t quite go according to plan.

Imaginatively directed by Abigail Pickard Price, with so much inventive theatrical ‘business’, it kept us all on our toes in case we missed something. The passing of letters between characters is magical and very cleverly executed.

The whole experience is like a delicious summer pudding, the perfect recipe to dispel the lockdown blues.

I can’t wait to see the next production of Camelot at the end of the month.


Reviews of Camelot

17th August to 5th September 2020

Review from Musical Theatre Review.

four stars
As regional theatres go, the Watermill is in an unique position to offer its audiences some escapism during this Covid-19 pandemic which has ravaged our theatre industry. Set in beautiful gardens with the River Lambourn running through the property, we owe a huge debt of gratitude to the Watermill team for putting their heads above the proverbial parapet and staging this outdoor concert version of Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot.

The proverbial parapet is particularly apt, transmogrified as it is here, into an elongated platform with colourful banners of the type which you would see at a country fayre or jousting tournament. A naive design complemented by a simplistic production emphasises the very real challenge of putting together a show with limited rehearsal time, a complete re-working of the script and the requirement for the actor-musician cast to be socially distanced and adhere to sanitisation guidelines.

In its world of knights, chivalry, romance and vengeance, Camelot is a touch of escapism in the midst of a crazy world. As a concert version, the majority of the actor-musicians form an orchestral line-up dipping in and out of cameo performances where required with Marc Antolin, Michael Jibson and Caroline Sheen making up the triumvirate of protagonists.

Director Paul Hart adheres to every social guideline by the book. Microphone stands are wiped down between usage, hand-gel is on the piano and a suitable distance is maintained between performers.

How things have changed in such a short space of time is startlingly apparent when King Arthur kisses his Guenevere and we are quickly reassured that Jibson and Sheen are real-life husband and wife.

Sheen has a beautiful voice that carries into the Berkshire night-sky with Jibson balancing regal authority with the melancholy of the resigned underdog and Antolin steals the show with his suave, precocious Lancelot who enjoys, probably a bit too much (!), cantering around on his mini hobby-horse to everyone’s delight.


Review from The Daily Telegraph.

This medieval musical is all moat and no castle

This outdoor concert staging is a valiant effort under difficult circumstances – but this 1960 musical isn't worth resurrecting

two stars
“Longer than the Gotterdammerung… and not nearly as funny!” Noël Coward is reputed to have quipped on seeing the protracted (four and a half hour) world premiere of Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot in Toronto in 1960.

Afflicted by director Moss Hart having a heart attack and Lerner getting a stomach ulcer, the pair’s arduously achieved follow-up to My Fair Lady was duly pruned and – graced by Richard Burton as King Arthur and Julie Andrews as Guenevere – did respectable business on Broadway, during which time it acquired the boosting fandom of JFK. Yet even at the time it looked much inferior to their earlier masterpiece.

And even running now at just 80 minutes in an outdoor concert staging at the Watermill, it feels like it’s all moat and no castle. Caught twixt jest and earnest, pre-Python but aware of chivalry’s pomposity, song after song trots by, tilting between effortful comedy and chaste emoting. It’s soporific stuff; were it not for the fresh air I’d have slept-a-lot.

No question, it’s a miracle that in a matter of weeks director Paul Hart has marshalled and rehearsed a company of 10 (the majority actor-musicians) and ensured they can take their place in a socially distanced way on a pavilion-style stage festooned with coats of arms and fairy-lights. I salute the collective effort and applaud individual contributions. As Guenevere, Caroline Sheen has a presence and voice as gleaming as a polished goblet. Her real-life husband Michael Jibson – an Olivier-winning King George in Hamilton – exudes an essential Arthurian decency even if, in his suited attire, he hardly looks battle-ready. Marc Antolin’s conceited Lancelot has his moments, too. It’s largely (understandably) a script in hand affair, but the problem is the by-the-book nature of the material. That holy grail of musicals, a vital raison d’etre, is missing.


Review from The Sunday Times.

The Watermill’s outdoor theatre is willow-wrapped bliss, but its Camelot needs more welly

three stars
Some theatres are so attractive it does not entirely matter if the show falls short. Arriving at the Watermill Theatre in Newbury, which with commendable speed has arranged Covid-compliant outdoor shows, I had to wait while a swan completed a full inspection of its left wing-pit. These things cannot be hurried. Eventually the swan gave me an old-fashioned look and waddled out of the way.

The Watermill’s willow-sheltered gardens have been turned into two performance spaces. This being the outdoors, you need not, thank heavens, wear masks. Theatregoers sit at cabaret-style tables and can dine before the show. On Tuesday fluffy clouds caught the evening sun. “In short there’s simply not a more congenial spot for happily-ever-aftering than here in Camelot,” runs the title song in Lerner and Loewe’s send-up of Arthurian myth. The same could be said of rural Berkshire.

Things start without aplomb. A band shuffle on to a jovially painted wooden stage, a narrator mumbles a few lines and King Arthur arrives in the form of Michael Jibson. In a black suit and red tie, he could be a New Labour minister. This is a concert version of Camelot and the performers hold scores. Jibson in particular might sing more convincingly without it. “I wonder what the king is doing tonight?” runs the first song. Learning his lines?

Arthur’s honey, Guinevere, is sung engagingly by Caroline Sheen, aka Mrs Jibson. After kissing Arthur she turns to the audience and says: “It’s all right, we’re married.” Enter — on the roof of an adjacent building — Marc Antolin’s Lancelot, darkly handsome and a touch dotty. “C’est moi!” he cries, admiring himself. “Is there some peril I can undertake?” “Er, there isn’t much going on today,” the king admits.

A few audience members swing ankles to The Lusty Month of May and go a bit eggy-eyed at If Ever I Would Leave You. Antolin’s comic touches and Alan Jay Lerner’s lyrics keep the show afloat. “Ah, Camelot, where the king gives freedom and the queen takes liberties.” Guinevere flutters her eyelashes as knights go “bashing and smashing and mashing one another” for her affections. With brighter lights and a darker sky, the second half feels more stagey but less bucolic. Some of the actors and musicians could give it more oomph, but it was lovely to be there. Theatre is tiptoeing back and life is starting to feel better.


Review from the Newbury Weekly News.

Knights from Broadway

Concert performance of Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot, in The Watermill theatre gardens, Bagnor, until September 5

The Watermill theatre's second summer production in their beautiful gardens is a delightfully charming concert production of Lerner and Lowe's Camelot, nimbly directed by Paul Hart.

With the audience seated at socially distanced tables and the sun shining, there was a lively atmosphere in anticipation of this appealing performance.

The simple colourful set created the spirit of a medieval jousting tournament arena, with banners flying and the actor/musicians resplendent in modern dress sitting under the canopy.

Chioma Uma is the narrator who introduces the audience to the legend of King Arthur, who wants a new order of chivalry where good prevails and disputes are settled by courts, judges and evidence rather than by the sword. An enormous change.

Michael Jibson is splendid as the pioneering king, exceedingly nervous about his forthcoming arranged marriage to Guenevere, the delightful Caroline Sheen, who has a beautiful singing voice.

Arthur sends out a call from Camelot for knights to join his Round Table and his new order. Sir Lancelot answers from France or rather from the roof of The Watermill – a lovely inventive touch – to join the knighthood.

Marc Antolin strikes an impressive pose as the suave Lancelot, who falls in love with Guenevere, giving an assured charismatic performance. However, his cavalier attitude docs not go down well with the rest of the knights.

Guenevere goads Sir Lionel (Tom Sowinski). Sir Sagramore (Damien James) and Sir Dinadan (Tom Self) to fight Lancelot at a joust, in what is a hilarious scene with Lancelot astride a child's hobby horse.

Matters get worse when Arthur's illegitimate son Mordred (Peter Dukes) returns to stir up trouble and discovers the love triangle between Guenevere, Lancelot and Arthur, whose new legal regime means Guenevere will he sentenced to death. But will Lancelot manage to rescue her?

There is strong support from Emma Jane Morton and Sioned Saunders in the ensemble band.

With glorious classic songs including How to Handle a Woman, If Ever I Would Leave You, and, of course, Camelot, all performed under the capable hands of musical director Tom Self and his talented musicians, this was a musical treat.