Tuesday, 17 July 2007

Martin Guerre - Watermill Theatre, Bagnor

Martin Guerre
Watermill Theatre: Wed 11th Jul - Sat 1st Sep
Book by: Alain Boubil & Claude-Michel Schonberg
Music by: Claude-Michel Schonberg
Lyrics by: Alain Boubil, Stephen Clark, Herbert Kretzmer & Declan Dommellan
Directed by: Craig Revel Horwood
Musical Supervision and Arrangement by: Sarah Travis
Reviewed by Jim Nicholson

If you did not see the original 1996 version of Martin Guerre, which won the Olivier for Best Musical, or its reinvention as a full scale touring production a couple of years later then you may well leave the Watermill Theatre believing that, in this Boubil/Schonberg offering, you have just witnessed one of the best staged musicals in a small theatre in recent years.

But for us devotees who were regular visitors to the Prince Edward Theatre back in 96, or followed the show “on the road”, there is a major challenge of accepting this production for what it is, in terms of a scaled down actor musician version, whilst not getting bogged down in trying to compare every performer, every song, every dance routine with the enormity of its West End original.

So, initially at least, trying to avoid those comparisons I can happily confirm that it will be almost impossible for any “punter” to leave the Watermill without being enthralled by the impact of the story, the haunting melodies, the clever lighting and use of props and the excellent staging of those “boot thumping” dance routines in such a confined space.

With all the “big” numbers the massed “village voice” is a wonderful sounding full on chorus whilst even more dramatic is the protestant/catholic screamed loathing of each other that is delivered with a precision and clarity that many other productions could learn from, the court proceedings taking this to its full extreme.

All that is missing is two “hairs on the back of your neck” voices in the roles of Betrande de Rols and Martin himself. Although Kelly O’Leary and Andrew Bevis play a big part in making this a night when the wristwatch is forgotten as the eyes never leave the stage they lack that “star quality” delivery that the shows melodic solo numbers demand. That said, Ben Goddard, playing the imposter Arnaud du Thil, gets close, but with the village in full voice on all the other numbers these slight flaws certainly do not spoil the evening.

Utilising the instruments as props in many of the scenes, this is most cleverly done with “the fool” Benoit‘s guitar doubling up as the love of his life, scarecrow Louison. Although the actions of the jealous farm hand Guillaume (Jez Unwin) with this “female” guitar may make you think twice about strumming it again in future.

Director Craig Revel Horwood has given this beautiful, but troubled giant of a show, in his own words, the simple treatment of peasant life. In actual fact the “in your face” performance space means a “pedigree” story reaches championship winning intensity.
The Director also choreographs the evening and proves he is not just “that bloke from that dance show on TV” but a top quality act with a long line of West End successes that include being assistant choreographer to Bob Avian on the original show, which scooped that years “best dance” Olivier. His use of the minimal floor space in staying true to some of those highly original routines just has to be seen.

With a degree of dialogue replacing parts of the sung through script and Betrande not giving away whether she knows Arnold is an imposter or not, this scaled down version has many pluses, including a return of the comic views of Hortense (Rosie Timpson), Ernestine (Susannah Van Den Beg) and, now joined by, Madame de Rols (Karen Mann), although her trumpet was, shall we say, shrill. The Watermill now have an even better offering than many of their recent West End transfers such as Mack and Mabel and Sweeney Todd.

So how do you win over those still harping on about the full orchestrations and spectacle of the West End original. For a start you are paying a third of the price of a West End seat, you are visiting the loveliest theatre setting this country has to offer and, with no sign of the show returning in its former juggernaut format, this offering will certainly rekindle your love of its music whilst also adding a new intensity to the story that ensures you have, what I would call, a good value, quality night out.

Martin Guerre runs at the Watermill theatre until 1st September for more information visit www.watermill.org.uk

Photos by: Robert day: 1st - Kelly O’Leary as Betrande de Rols: 2nd Suzanna ven den Berg(Ernestine), Karen Mann (Madame de Rols) and Esther Biddle (Catherine): 3rd Ben Goddard (Arnaud du Thil): 4th Andrew Bevis (Martin Guerre)
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