A BUNCH OF AMATEURS – Watermill, Nr Newbury

The tiny am-dram theatre is threatened with redevelopment: only celebrity casting can save it. Jefferson Steel – fading star of Ultimate Finality 1, 2, 3, and 4, each worse than the last – is hoodwinked by his LA agent into a UK stage debut, as King Lear. He thinks he is heading for the the RSC but finds the Suffolk mud of another Stratford. Director Dorothy Nettle welcomes the furious dupe, though a less warm reception comes from her deposed leading man, preening Nigel who reckons he’s the new Olivier. Cue an evening of raging, pathos, bathos, and fine old-fashioned farcical fun.


For theatre loves to mock itself: from The Critic to Noises Off , cluttered backstage sets, self-parodying tantrums and blissful overacting strike a happy chord in both actors and audiences. Comedy scriptwriters Ian Hislop and Nick Newman (with an idea from John Ross and Jonathan Gershfield) wrote a 2008 film with Burt Reynolds as the American and Derek Jacobi, no less, as Nigel. This, though, is its stage premiere, rewritten entirely: Hislop assures me “We were able to use more Shakespeare, and put back lots of good lines which Burt couldn’t manage”.
They have also, with oddly moving effect, used the Fool’s songs from Lear, set by Paul Herbert, to cover with rueful aptness the scene-changes. For these, in Tom Rogers’ faux home-made amdram set, the cast unfold chintzy perfect little room-sets of the local b & b in front of the central stage-within-a-stage. It supports the general sense of homely fun. Mitchell Mullen is choleric and satisfyingly bad-mannered as the Hollywood star: trapped by his own publicity, trailerless and outraged by having to walk the fifty yards from Mary’s b&b – “English breakfast? Bring me a guava juice, eggwhite frittata, and a skinny decaf latte with soya..” etc). Sarah Moyle is wonderful as the starstruck middle-aged Goneril, all girlish toothy grins and flattery, but constantly confusing him with Willis or Schwarzenegger. Another treat is Damian Myerscough as the local plumber torn between his self-appointed role as Steel’s “entourage” and his anxiety to incorporate a pickled onion in the blinding of Gloucester. Aactually, in a recent Lear in Bath, the eye was tossed into Goneril’s martini just like a cocktail onion, so he’s bang on-trend there.
There is nicely modulated tension between Nigel (Michael Hadley) with his orotundly ghastly Gielgud ac-ting, and Steel’s contemptuous Hollywoodism (“I wanna rewrite! And I don’t do crazy, cut the loonytunes on the heath”). The plot romps along briskly, with the arrival of Steel’s estranged teenage daughter and Lear-ish echoes in their relationship. There’s a standard rom-com misunderstanding and a crisis elegantly reflecting Shakespeare’s storm. Hislop and Newman are human enough to let in real emotions, not to mention sentimentalities about the redemptive power of theatre ( with which I of course concur). But they’re savvy enough to temper both with sharply funny bathos.


And just as you think aha! here comes a soft landing with “I am a very foolish fond old man”, there’s a final shock which tumbles, beautifully, into a priceless joke relating to ER. There’s a lot of love gone into this production, under Caroline Leslie’s skilled direction: whether the play will last I can’t quite predict. Except to say that if Kevin Spacey fancies a bit of self-mocking fun in his final summer next year at the Old Vic, I’d really love to see him as Jefferson Steel. Could happen.


01635 46044 to 28 June

rating four (it woz Shakespeare that won the fourth..)3 Meece RatingThe Bard Mouse width fixed

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