Watermill Theatre - Our Man in Havana
7th April to 21st May 2022
Review from Newbury Theatre.
The sleeping pianist wakes up, has a swig of whiskey and starts to play, leading us into the first of many songs that pepper this musical. It’s 1958 and Havana under President Batista is attracting rich Americans to its fleshpots and gambling dens while the ordinary Cubans are suffering from poverty. The country is ripe for a revolution.
Our man in Havana is James Wormold, a vacuum cleaner salesman who’s lived there for many years with his 16-year-old daughter Milly. Wormold is struggling financially and Milly is pestering him to get her a horse. A solution appears in the form of MI6 agent Hawthorne who meets Wormold in a bar and tries to recruit him. Wormold sees an opportunity to solve his problems through the unlimited ‘expenses’ on offer from Hawthorne.
Wormold is being pressed to supply some secret information to MI6 and he confides in his old friend Hasselbacher who persuades him to invent some. And things start to go wrong…
The cast of five, plus Antonio Sánchez as on-stage musical director, are very impressive – talented musicians, singers and actors. Nigel Lister is the slightly seedy Wormold, tentatively working his way through the MI6 maze and emerging triumphant. Daniella Agredo Piper is his precocious teenager Milly, sparkly and energetic. Alvaro Flores is the baddy Captain Segura, memorably seducing the microphone while singing, and the stiff upper lip Hawthorne. Paula James as Beatrice is another MI6 agent, turning on the charm for Wormold. Adam Keast deftly switches between Hasselbacher and the MI6 chief.
The songs, with music by Ben Morales Frost, are a mix of lively Cuban rhythms for the whole cast, narrative songs for two people which move the action along and jingoistic songs for the MI6 Brits. It’s a good combination and works well except that Antonio Sánchez’s enthusiastic piano playing drowns the singers out from time to time.
Director Abigail Pickard Price’s slick production gets the best from her talented cast.
The set is dominated by two pianos. Fully functional and both used, but with a twist, literally, as bits get folded out to depict different scenes. Who knew that a piano could be turned into a row of urinals?
Graham Greene’s book, variously described as a satirical spy novel and a black comedy, has undergone some plot changes by author Richard Hough which don’t detract from the play. All in all, this is a refreshing new musical, entertaining but also topical in its worrying anticipation of global conflict.
Review from the Newbury Weekly News.
Alive with that Cuban vibe
The Watermill premieres their rollercoaster comedy full of colourful characters
The Watermill theatre have a world premiere with Ben Morales Frost and Richard Hough’s musical adaption of Graham Greene’s satirical novel Our Man in Havana – and it sizzles with the exotic Cuban atmosphere.
Kat Heath’s inventive set perfectly captures the atmosphere of the old streets of 1950s Havana during President Batista’s administration before Castro came to power.
James Wormold, impressively played by Nigel Lister, is a vacuum cleaner salesman whose extravagant 17-year-old daughter Millie, the delightful Daniella Agredo Piper, is excessively spending his money on shopping trips which he can ill afford, especially as she wants a racehorse for her birthday.
When he accidently meets the MI6 agent Hawthorne (Alvara Flores) in the local bar he is recruited to spy on the suspected Soviet activity on the island with the promise of unlimited funds to support his activities. An ideal solution to his financial problems.
The trouble is that he doesn’t have any intelligence information to pass on and is persuaded by his long-time friend and confidant Dr Hasselbacher (Adam Keast) to invent characters and situations to send back to London. He gathers names from the local newspaper to use, which has disastrous consequences.
MI6 begins to get suspicious and sends Beatrice (Paula James) to allegedly provide secretarial support but really to investigate Hawthorne, much to his angst. She also plays the alluring Maria and has a powerful captivating singing voice.
Flores also plays the corrupt police officer who has desires on Milly and his seductive romantic song to her is truly comical.
There is a wonderful scene when he plays a game of chequers with Wormold with miniature spirit bottles as the pieces.
It’s become obvious to Hawthorne and Milly that “the game is up” and the only way to survive this tangled web of lies is to escape from Cuba.
This vibrant energetic production has the usual Watermill’s trademark of actor/musicians who create the Cuban vibe with so much skill, moving from instrument to instrument under Antonio Sánchez’s inspired on-stage musical direction.
Directed with pizzaz by Abigail Pickard Price, this is not to be missed.
Review from The Guardian.
Graham Greene classic becomes a clever musical
Though equivocal about many aspects of religion, Graham Greene had nearly supernatural gifts of prophecy as a novelist. The Quiet American (1955) spookily previewed America’s disaster in Vietnam. Three years later, Our Man in Havana, in which an English expat vacuum cleaner salesman in Cuba sells fake secrets to MI6 for cash, was an espionage farce that turned serious with the Iraq “dodgy dossier” and other blurring of fact and fabrication. Greene’s spy fiction heir, John le Carré, so admired Our Man in Havana that he wrote an acknowledged homage in The Tailor of Panama.
In their musical version, world premiering at the picturesque and enterprising Watermill, Richard Hough (book and lyrics) and Ben Morales Frost (music), are alert to both the story’s topicalities about the unreliability of information and the chain of literary heritage. One of the strongest songs, The Perfect Spy, alluding to a Le Carré title, nicely honours two of the greatest English writers about public and private deceit.
The score is geographically two-tone – mambo and rumba rhythms for locals, such as the twice-reprised The Streets of Havana – and Noël Cowardly recitative and patter for Nigel Lister’s imperfect spy James Wormold. As Milly, the teenager whose shopping and equestrian bills lead her divorced father to trade falsehoods, Daniella Agredo Piper appropriately moves between the musical dual nationalities.
The performers deserve an ensemble award for astonishing multi-skilling. Lister accompanies on double bass or guitar the few scenes he isn’t in. Adam Keast, fast-changing between the parts of a Whitehall spymaster and a Cuban secret policeman, also finds time for string and percussion. Paula James plays two contrasting women, plus guitar and drums. On the tiny stage, Abigail Pickard Price’s neat direction somehow prevents anyone getting pranged by bow, drumstick or the quick-change bits of Kat Heath’s ingenious set, in which pianos suddenly become urinals, bookcases or cars.
As is often the case with new musicals, it feels another rigorous workshop away from becoming the absolute pleasure attainable. In the second half, the book contains too much novel: Greene’s great scene of a game of draughts with spirit miniatures as pieces is curiously spoken, not sung. But while the novel has dated in some ways – its first line of dialogue contains the n-word – this show enjoyably and intelligently distils Greene’s lasting truths about lying.
Review from The Telegraph.
Graham Greene’s spy story set to syncopated Latin rhythms
Recruited to MI6 in the early Forties, Graham Greene was a natural spy – at least according to the journalist and satirist Malcolm Muggeridge, who knew whereof he spoke. He judged him “tremendously good at dealing with agents and working out cover plans”. He was equally enthusiastic about Our Man in Havana.
“The most brilliant book on intelligence that’s ever been written,” he raved about Greene’s 1958 comic novel about a Brit abroad in febrile pre-revolution Cuba – a hard-up vacuum-cleaner seller called Wormold – who’s recruited to the information-gathering cause but soon out of his depth, cooking up reports, concocting agents. “It gets inside the whole fantasy.. [the] feeling of it, the ludicrousness… the way people get caught up in it.”
The book has made it to the stage before, in a touring production. Now it has been given a musical treatment by composer Ben Morales Frost and Richard Hough (book, lyrics), whose most recent endeavour was a family show called The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, streamed during the last national lockdown.
That work had at its centre a father-daughter relationship. And, interestingly, the most pronounced aspect of this evening is the dynamic between Wormold and his adored teenage lass Milly, raised as a pious Catholic but fiendishly devoted to spending pater’s dosh. Small wonder that when an MI6 operative called Hawthorne – played by Noël Coward in the 1959 film – makes an approach, temptation wins out.
“Father you scrimp, father you save, you can’t take it all to the grave,” Milly neatly warbles here, as she declares her insurmountable desire to have a horse for a birthday present. “My marriage got the best of me, my daughter wants the rest of me,” no less neatly observes the fusty burnt-out case, in a corresponding, wistful number – Used To Being Used – which any put-upon or over-drawn parent will relate to.
Pat lyrics aren’t an inherent sin, and allowances can be made if the musical gains are sufficient. What the production, directed by Abigail Pickard Price, offers in spades is the sensuous feel of Cuban life in the score’s syncopated Latin rhythms and the carnivalesque quality of the six actor-musicians ducking and diving about the tiny Watermill stage.
Too often, though, if you were to glance at the related passages in the book, you’d see that what has been lost in translation is a dry, subtle, keenly observing wit; the grass is genuinely Greener on the other side. For a musical about intelligence there’s a lot of heart-on-sleeve emoting. The solution? Prune some of the excessive numbers and make more use of the recyclable dialogue with which the author (a playwright too) peppered his prose.
The comedy works, even so. Nigel Lister exudes the right hopeless, moth-eaten quality in a role taken on screen by Alec Guinness, albeit his singing voice can incline to long-distance-call faintness. There’s winning perkiness from the women: Daniella Agredo Piper is a personable delight as Milly, Paula James a force to be reckoned with as Beatrice, the slippery operative dispatched to keep an eye on “our man”.
The brutality of the dictatorship is sufficiently broached; Alvaro Flores’s imposing captain Segura has, ugh, a cigarette case made of human skin. Cuba’s seedier side – Greene was much taken with its nocturnal nude cabarets – is understandably just hinted-at. Worth investigating then, but the soundest advice for the unsure is to stick with the book.
Review from The Times.
Murky plotting, but genial songs lift the spirits
A novel about a bogus spy in Batista’s Cuba may not seem obvious material for a musical. Then again, Graham Greene categorised Our Man in Havana as one of his “entertainments” (The Ministry of Fear was another), so why shouldn’t the composer Ben Morales Frost and the lyricist Richard Hough take up the challenge?
If you’re a Greene fan, you’ll want to see how well the satire holds up. Neutrals will enjoy Abigail Pickard Price’s production, even if the plot will seem opaque to anyone who isn’t familiar with the original. And, as always with the Watermill’s trademark actor-musician projects, the sight of cast members switching so easily between singing and playing is all part of the fun.
Nigel Lister certainly catches the world-weary mood of Greene’s central character, Wormold, a British expat eking out a living selling vacuum cleaners in a country on the brink of revolution. When he is recruited by an MI6 agent, he sees an opportunity to make some extra money to support his wilful teenage daughter, Milly. That most of the information he passes on is make-believe is neither here nor there.
The opening number evokes the sleepy ambience of Old Havana on an atmospheric set (by Kat Heath) dominated by two upright pianos that also serve as props and furniture. The arrangements, by Frost and Eliane Correa, make lyrical use of guitar, keyboard and percussion. Congas, guiro and shekere are all thrown into the mix, the actors taking up whatever comes to hand.
Alvaro Flores elegantly handles the roles of the MI6 agent Hawthorne and Captain Segura, the suave but bloodstained officer who pursues Milly (impishly played by Daniella Agredo Piper). When the action occasionally moves to MI6 headquarters in London, the composers add some Noël Coward-style pomp. He’ll Always Be an Englishman is a suitably clipped exercise in flag-waving. The double bass-playing Adam Keast takes the roles of the London chief and Wormold’s old friend Hasselbacher.
The music is easy on the ear, although it’s a pity there isn’t more Buena Vista Social Club-style energy. As is so often the case with a new musical, it’s the book that needs tweaking. It’s always going to be a challenge to condense the allusiveness and dry humour of the novel. And the relationship between Wormold, Milly and his new secretary/minder, Beatrice (Paula James), forms an awkward emotional triangle. Never mind, the musical director Antonio Sanchez’s lissom piano playing helps to mask the occasional crack in the script.