A Bunch Of Amateurs At The Watermill Theatre

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Last Christmas while attending our family’s traditional outing to the Watermill Theatre’s festive production – The Adventures Of Pinocchio – we saw a poster for a production of A Bunch Of Amateurs, a film my mother had seen and enjoyed, this summer and with its stage run falling around the same time as my Father’s birthday it seemed to make sense to make the short trip back to the Watermill and enjoy an evening’s entertainment in the name of birthday presents! Now I must confess that besides from the brief plot synopsis that my mother had provided me when we first saw the poster I knew absolutely nothing about what to expect and in fact, ashamedly, I had forgotten entirely that we were planning to come to it until my mother announced quietly in the days before my father’s birthday that’d she’d picked up the tickets.

Nick Newman and Ian Hislop at The Watermill Theatre

Adapted for the stage by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman, who came together to form a writing partnership while both studying at Oxford University, and who wrote the original 2008 film on which it’s based, my view and perception of the play was somewhat and sadly skewed by the Hislop connection because however much you try to forget it, that “celebrity name” seems to instantly form an expectation in your mind as to the types of mannerisms, writing styles and overall tone you are expecting. Not helped by having the Private Eye editor himself sitting 2 rows in front of you. And it’s such a shame, because the writing partnership of Hislop and Newman, that has credits in a lot of the last 20 years top comic TV, never feels lop sided, honestly, you can never work out “who wrote what” to use an appalling piece of English.

Getting onto the play itself, it really is very good. The film is worth a watch, but this production, especially set at The Watermill, a theatre that feels both professional enough to do the performance justice but also rustic enough to drag you right into the basic, simplistic setting of local amateur dramatics, is perfect. And from the opening moments you know you are in for a grown up treat.

Going in as blind as I did and not really knowing what to expect, as always, acted as a double edged sword. On the one hand, the stage blindness so-to-speak, meant that I wasn’t worried about an evening’s comic entertainment set around the production of Shakespeare’s King Lear, and the obvious worry that potential extended periods of the Bard’s dialogue can bring, but rather I was able to just relax into the production and soak up what it was offering.

In terms of plot and setting, it’s rather basic. Local “AmDram” production of King Lear manages by bring in big Hollywood star because he doesn’t realise that there is more than one Stratford in the UK and that “on Avon” is not in the county of Suffolk. This then provides the starting point for a journey from pompous and arrogant to humble and reformed for our American friend, with a bit of shouting, scandal and swearing along the way. Yes, underneath it all, it’s very clichéd, simplistic and bordering on the potentially, basic but this lightness actually removes the complexity of the plot in such a way that it gives the writing and the performances room to shine and steal the show.

Dennis - A Bunch Of Amateurs

Starting with the writing, at times it is an utter joy to behold, it is fast, snappy and modern and will leave you rolling in the isles with laughter. But sadly, for every two or three moments of belly aching clarity it manages to muddy the waters a little with ideas, actions and punch lines that are so predictable as to be visible from the proverbial mile marker. And while the second act flies past (surprisingly it is longer than the initial) and leaves you hungry for more, it’s that initial act that at times plods slowly forward leaves you slightly fearful for the pacing of the story. Shakespeare crops up regularly, and for the majority with is used with enough frivolity and comic delivery that, if like me, you’ve never really understood what ye olde penman was on about, you won’t lose out or miss anything. In fact, by the end when he makes his serious mark on the script, the rest of the play has tied everything together in the Queen’s modern language so well that you are actually able to follow quite easily the man’s ramblings.

Sadly though, to hide the physical set alterations and help ease the scene changes, they have created short musical narration which I found almost impossible to follow, understand and just did’t seem to fit with the rest of the style and delivery of play. They don’t detract from the play but rather, just felt unnecessary.

Sarah Moyle & Mitchell Mullen - A Bunch Of Amateurs

Where things really shine and why I have enjoyed it so much is the cast. As always I have a balanced argument as a couple of the performances felt weaker or stereotypical in comparison but Mitchell Mullen as the American Hollywood superstar Jefferon Steel is brilliant and Sarah Moyle absolutely steals it with a comic performance that while not heavy with lines, is delivered with such perfection and expression that it’s worth the admission fee alone. Sadly though, the main character, narrator and boss of Dorothy, played by Jackie Morrison felt almost too English, slightly too maternal and borders at times on the pantomimic. I felt there were occasions when she could have easily looked at the audience and asked “oh fayr eyes where oust our travelling star?” before being met by a prepubescent scream of “He’s behind you”.

The biggest issue though I had was not with Morrison’s lead but rather with Jessica Steel, daughter of our American star, or to be more exact, with how she was brought to life by Eleanor Brown. She appears to have created a character based on both looks and accent, on Lizzie Bradbury; the “American Tennis Ace” Kirsten Dunst played in the film Wimbledon. Honestly, you could have lifted her straight off the big screen, and it provided such a distraction that it destroyed the connection that is obviously meant to form as Dad and Daughter bond and come together through the play.

Don’t let the few issues it has put you off it though, because truly, I haven’t had such an enjoyable evening out, filled with as many laughs and tears, in a long time. For a small production in a rural theatre I have enjoyed it as much, and been left as impressed as I was, when I went to see Les Misérable’s in the West End. And it knocks every Lloyd Webber “touring” production I’ve seen in Oxford out the park. My gut reaction is that if it tours it may lose something, because it’s made so well by the current cast, anyone taken it on would have almost too much to live up to.I would therefore, urge you to see it at The Watermill during this current run. Honestly, you won’t be sorry.

8 out of 10 stars (8 / 10)

Posted on by 5WC in Stage First Edition

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