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The Miser (Newbury, Watermill Theatre)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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It’s not just the flowers that are in bud at the Watermill Theatre. New talent is being nurtured there thanks to FREEWHEEL, a project giving young professional actors and designers the chance of an extended rehearsal period under the leadership of no less luminary than Nancy Meckler.

If the première of Martin Sherman’s sprightly new adaptation of this Molière favourite, directed by Meckler with young director Ant Stones as her assistant, is anything to go by, the project is a resounding success. Young designer Ellan Parry has seized the opportunity and challenge represented by the Watermill’s intimate auditorium to provide a thrust stage placing performers and audience in a shared space ideal for the confidences – and the ribaldry – of Molière spiced with the commedia dell'arte knockabout that inspired the great farce writer.

She backs this up with a fantastical wall of padlocks, chains and safe-like cubby-holes complete with ingenious built-in hand and footholds for clambering up and down. And Joshua Carr’s lighting (like Parry and Stones, he’s just starting out) complements her work with sunshine and shadows – and light thrown on the odd bit of audience participation too …

In short a great machine for acting, upon which Meckler’s fresh and energetic young cast frolic and plot with great panache. The eponymous miser is Harpagon, way meaner than Scrooge, a repulsively filthy old man in an ancient shabby robe you could swear you can smell in Alex Mann’s gloriously scabrous performance.

Somehow he’s sired two delightful children, the delectable, resourceful Elise (delightfully bouncy Helen Sorren) yearning to marry her true love, quick-witted Valère (versatile Daniel Wilde – see below), who has contrived to become Harpagon’s trusted steward; and her equally winning and wily brother, the dandyish Cléante, (elegant Ben Ashton), ardent lover of Charlie Russell’s sweet and winsome, penniless Marianne.

Of course there’s no way the course of true love can run smoothly, given that Harpagon demands huge dowries from anyone aspiring to marry his offspring and is unwilling to provide anything in return. And worse still, he plans to wed young Marianne himself.

Will true love (including the miser’s very real love for his gold) win? Will Harpagon’s long-suffering servants continue to serve him without proper wages and enough to eat? And were there really only seven versatile performers? There seems to be a cast of almost twice that number, thanks to some consummately skilled doubling from Edmund Digby-Jones and Daniel Wilde and clowning from almost everyone in the commedia dell'arte inspired interludes that punctuate the action.

And after an Act One that is perhaps overlong, there’s a delicious surprise well worth the waiting in Act Two with the arrival onstage of the irresistible matchmaker Frosine – irresistible to her clients who are powerless to resist her arguments, and simply irresistible to the audience in Eliza Collings’ gloriously funny performance.

So Watermill audiences may well be in on the start of some glittering careers both on stage and in the creative team, thanks to FREEWHEEL.


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