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Watermill - Thieves' Carnival

20th July to 10th September 2005.

From The Times.

Two stars
The Watermill is up for sale, and to ensure its future, the Theatre Trust must raise £3 million to purchase the building and carry out urgent improvements. The closure of a producing venue with such an impressive track record would be a terrible loss. This new production of Jean Anouilh’s 1932 comedy, in Lucienne Hill’s 1951 translation, is not, however, among the theatre’s best work.

Andy Brereton’s production is in the Watermill’s enlivening trademark actor-musician ensemble style. But the drama itself, commedia dell’arte-influenced and categorised by its author as one of his pièces roses, or pink plays, is a dated, rather pointless affair. And Brereton’s staging is so chaotic that at times its plot twists are difficult to follow, and so uninvolving, that you barely feel like trying.

It’s the early 20th century, and an eccentric English aristocrat, Lady Hurf, and her two young nieces, are holidaying in the spa town of Vichy. The girls, with their alluring looks and even more alluring wealth, are catnip to local conmen, and fall prey to three inept professional thieves as well as an impoverished upper-crust father hoping to propel his dimwitted son into a profitable marriage. In a curious confidence trick, the thieves disguise themselves as Spanish noblemen — but they reckon without the caprices of Lady Hurf, who is so intolerably bored with her uneventful existence that she pretends to mistake them for old acquaintances and invites them to stay. Identities and emotions become increasingly confused as love blossoms across the social divide.

Anouilh’s play is typically bittersweet. The elder niece, Eva, is widowed and despairs of ever feeling passion or anything like it again; Lady Hurf’s ennui is the product of loneliness. But Brereton succeeds neither in capturing this poignancy nor in blending it with the piece’s frantic farce. His production begins in the theatre’s beautiful grounds, with characters encountering one another on an elegant white bandstand, and here the slapstick antics are diverting enough. Inside, though, on Gary McCann’s drawing-room set with its delicate plasterwork and glittering chandelier, they look cramped and dismally unfunny. The acting is uneven, one moment wildly broad, the next stiff and leaden.

Karen Mann suggests a suppressed sorrow in Lady Hurf that redeems the character from caricature, and Paul Benzing, Michael Lambourne and James Traherne are appealingly daft as the three thieves. But for all its colour and bluster, this production has the buoyancy of a pricked balloon.

SAM MARLOWE

From the Newbury Weekly News.

Stealing the show

Thieves' Carnival, at The Watermill, Bagnor, until September 10

The Watermill sold out over Christmas with Arabian Nights, and now director Andy Brereton is aiming to repeat that success with a summer run of Jean Anouilh's 1932 romp Thieves' Carnival.

Thieves' Carnival tells the tale of a trio of thieves who target a knowing aristocrat, Lady Hurf and her family, by dressing as Spanish aristocrats.

Along the way the two younger rogues fall one way or another for the ladies of the family, and jostle for their affections with the wet and needy bankers Dupont-Dufort Junior and Senior.

Brereton's production makes full use of The Watermill's location, to the extent he has made the brave decision to stage the first act outside, in the garden.

This works well, as the characters mingle with the audience prior to the performance, Hannah Tristram's accordion conjuring the atmosphere of Vichy France at the beginning of the last century.

The cast has also rehearsed act one for the theatre, and by the time you read this, will doubtless have had to perform it inside, which is a shame, because the atmosphere may be lost in the transfer.

I mentioned the accordion, but should point out that this is a musical affair all round, with the actor/musicians regularly picking up their instruments to good effect.

Thieves' Carnival is one of Anouilh's lighter works and, while Brereton has mentioned that the themes of love and frustration drew him to the project, the truth is such seriousness is merely an aside from the comedy.

And the comedy is brilliantly and cleverly worked throughout the production.

Taking influence from silent movies, the three thieves are excellent. In particular James Traherne, as Hector, steals the show, if you'll excuse the pun.

Both Kieran Buckeridge and Derek Crewe are excellently wet as the Dupont-Duforts and John Surman delivers a quietly hilarious performance as Lord Edgard, effortlessly delivering the funniest line in the show in the final act.

The truth is none of the cast disappoint, although those with less physically comedic parts have less to work with in the translation.

However, The Watermill can be confident that it has yet another success on its hands.

Much more confident, in fact, than it can be in the weather.

GARY CLELAND

From Kick FM.

To get you into the summer mood, the play starts in the garden, with the cast drifting on to a bandstand and joining in with their instruments. Yes, this is another Watermill production where the actors are all musicians too, but there’s no singing in this one. It’s about holidaymakers in Vichy who take up with a gang of thieves, who put on a variety of disguises and accents. You’ve probably guessed it’s a comedy, and it has elements of farce, slapstick and panto. It features the redoubtable Karen Mann, who’s appeared in many Watermill productions, and also Derek Crewe who looks and sounds just like Peter Glaze, if you’re old enough to remember Crackerjack. It’s not too demanding, and a very pleasant way to spend a summer’s evening.

PAUL SHAVE

From The Sunday Times.

Three stars
With flair, the Watermill has revived a prewar comedy by Jean Anouilh, set in turn-of-the-century Vichy, when it was a watering hole for the idle rich. Elegantly styled by Gary McCann, there is a touch of Fellini in the director Andy Brereton’s production, which uses actor-musicians to create a charming atmosphere of fantasy. The first act is played on a bandstand in the gardens, as though we are all holidaymakers, and the action is suitably punctuated by Janie Armour’s music. The plot is light and silly: a group of con men is in town to batten on the visitors, but they meet their match in their intended victims, none of whom is what they seem. Karen Mann (trumpet) plays a grande dame who is so bored she pretends to be taken in by the gang, thwarting the plans of Kieran Buckeridge and Derek Crewe (guitar and bass), who are after the fortunes of the wards of her friend John Surman (trombone). Neither trainee villain Michael Lambourne (drums) nor wealthy heiress Louise Shuttleworth (clarinet) is happy with their lot, until love finds a way to bring this gentle satire to a close.

ROBERT HEWISON

The Reviews Gate review is here ("found the gags largely unfunny and the style too much... I left feeling a sense of emptiness").