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CALAMITY JANE Watermill, Newbury


Yee-ha! Calamity Jane strides in, beefy in buckskins, more beltingly, braggingly alive than any man in the room. Or, indeed, any room. She’s been ridin’ the stagecoach through war-parties of redskins real and fictional, likes to accentuate a point by firing her six-shooter at the ceiling, and presents the more feminine Sue-from-the-saloon with a dress-length of gingham roaring “I wouldn’t know how to act with sump’n like that hangin’ off me”. This dame can make Wild Bill Hickock look prissy, and as for poor Lieut Danny whose wounds she binds up with yearning calf-love, he’s plumb terrified. As is the extravagantly bearded Rattlesnake, stagecoach-driver and bass player (Paul Kissaun) who recoils timidly from her fabulous swagger, like the grizzly-b’ars. Of which she says she just shot two. At once.


What a treat is this stage version of the great Warner Brothers 1953 Fain and Webster musical . A few minutes in, cosied up under a rope chandelier with the regulars in the Golden Garter saloon, you feel a daft grin spreading across your face which never deserts you all evening. I’d forgotten about the Doris Day film, but every number in this feast of feelgood ‘50s Americana is a classic, as the Deadwood Stage rolls again through the Black Hills of Dakota, whipcrackaway! Unbidden, the audience softly sings along with the Black Hills in the dance scene. And Nikolai Foster’s production is a joy: a cast of storming actor-musicians seizing instruments from fiddle to spoons and percussing the scenery, then breaking into brilliantly hokey line-dance movement from Nick Winston. All this within Matthew Wright’s saloon–and-stage set, perfect in its battered intimacy. The show tours onwards next month and is tough enough to take any theatre: but within the little wooden Watermill it is a particular kind of bliss.


And of course Jodie Prenger was born to play Calamity. She’s a belting singer, as we all know from OLIVER (she won ‘I’d do Anything’) but also a smart mover and a dab hand at the spoons. And she radiates a lovable vitality which, in the old cliché, lights up the stage. The plot, diverging somewhat from history but in a good cause, has her braggingly promising to bring a top Chicago act – Adelaid Adams – to the saloon where the guys fight over cigarette-card pictures of the star: the landlord nearly got lynched when he accidentally booked a man (Rob Delaney with a hilarious tap-and-uke routine) instead of a burlesquer. Calam brings a substitute, the ambitious Katie (Phoebe Street) and a romantic tangle ensues, with Prenger dropping her macho act in genuinely moving disappointment and sadness before finding – ta-daaa! – true love in Wild Bill.


Hokum, hokum all the way but a blast of playful energy. The rattling stagecoach ride is created by Rattlesnake and Calamity sitting on the top of the old upright piano and the rest shuddering behind , Phoebe Street has a gorgeous feather-duster ballet to “A Woman’s Touch”, Tom Lister’s is sultry Rhett-Butlerish Hickok, and we learn the best Wild-west insult any sister coulda wished for: “Ya frilled-up man-rustler!”.


box office 01635 46044 to 6 sept then touring nationwide to Dec.
rating: four   4 Meece Rating


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