Tuesday 30 July 2013

The Witches of Eastwick

Watermill Theatre, Newbury

Based on the novel by John Updike
Book and lyrics by John Dempsey
Music by Dana P Rowe
Directed and choreographed by Craig Revel Horwood

Alex Bourne (lucky devil) with l-r Poppy Tierney, Joanna Hickman and Tiffany Graves

Driving along the M4 through a horrendous storm, a vivid streak of forked lightning over Newbury suggests a good omen for the opening night of Craig Revel Horwood’s take on The Witches Of Eastwick. And indeed on approaching the Watermill Theatre, set as its name suggests amongst some of Berkshire’s finest wetlands, the evening was to prove an enchanting first commercial revival of the show in five years.

An initial visit to The Watermill finds the auditorium surprisingly small for such a regional centre of excellence, yet the stage is designed thoughtfully and with an attention to detail that smacks of outstanding production values notwithstanding the budgetary restrictions that are probably imposed upon such a modest venue. Actually, “outstanding” is the one word that sums up this show.

Revel Horwood is a gifted director, not only for the movement and choreography he envisions, but more importantly for the performances that he coaxes from all of his talented cast. The three leading ladies are Tiffany Graves, Poppy Tierney and Joanna Hickman, all accomplished actresses who not only bring depth and nuance to each of the women they portray, but also excellence in their acting and vocal work. The story is pure comic-book fiction, yet each actress portrays her two dimensional character with canny three dimensional depth. Billed as a musical comedy, these performers work their seductive skills upon the entire audience and in an unashamedly sexual staging, Revel Horwood extracts performances from his Witches that lustfully sizzle, yet remain on the right side of decency throughout the show, just. The act two opener, Another Night At Darryl’s, led by a smouldering Tierney as sculptress Alexandra, with its suggestions of mud wrestling as the three women daub each other with her wet clay, has to be seen to be believed. Similarly with Sukie Rougemont's (played by Graves) steamy act one number Words. The song is a singer's minefield, demanding fast and complex lyrics to be delivered whilst Sukie is being seduced and made love to. Graves nails it.

Joanna Hickman fiddles furiously as Alex Bourne seductively strums

Three witches of this calibre demand a devil that is up to their strong characters and Alex Bourne’s Darryl van Horne is perfectly cast. In a show where the performers are all required to play an instrument, (a delightfully long-established economic policy of The Watermill) Bourne’s sex fuelled rebel naturally plays the electric guitar. The actor brings perfect gravitas and presence to van Horne and his Dance With The Devil is but one example of a performance that will please many women in the audience.

The baddy of the piece is local townswoman Felicia Gabriel. It is usually wrong to compare castings from different productions, but let’s make an exception. Rosemary Ashe who created this harridan at Drury Lane in 2000 reprises her monstrous character and like a fine Scotch whisky, she has wonderfully matured over the years. When early on in the show an indignant Felicia proclaims “I am Eastwick”, Ashe aint kidding!

Rosemary Ashe leads the (washing) line in the wonderful Dirty Laundry ensemble number

Licensed by Cameron Mackintosh, this show represents by far and away the best musical revival to be staged out of town this summer and the producers would do well to consider how its glorious spirit can be transferred to London come the autumn.

The ingenious effects of Revel Horwood's staging are not smoke and mirrors. Close up, we can all see how everything’s done, but for once, that really doesn’t matter. The magic of this show lies not in its special effects, but rather in the crafted talent and beauty that Revel Horwood has inspired his entire company to deliver. You won’t see a better cast this year.

Runs until 14 September 2013. Booking details here

To read my profile of composer Dana P. Rowe, click here

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