”Notes from a Small Island” review – Bill Bryson

This stage adaptation (by Tim Whitnall) of Bill Bryson’s love letter to his adopted home has found its ideal home in the warm intimacy of the Watermill Theatre. Thanks to artistic director Paul Hart’s own intimacy with the space he loves and his long established working relationship with designer Katie Lias, the tiny stage is perfectly set up to host Bryson’s wanderings and wonderings. It provides the cosy interiors of pubs, guest house dining rooms and even a cinema, all places where Bryson encounters and embraces an astonishing array of locals and fellow visitors. The stroke of genius is to open out the space with George Reeve’s inspired video projections. They take in not just streets and squares, but also landmarks and beauty spots including Stonehenge, the Yorkshire Dales and, as the show opens with Bryson’s arrival in Dover, the iconic White Cliffs.

And so we, the audience, get to share Bryson on Britain, starting with his first impressions back in 1973. Mark Hadfield cosily inhabits the persona of the rucksack-wearing wanderer, our guide on his journeys, constantly sharing his impressions with us as he consults maps – and most significantly (often eccentric) locals, across the width and breadth of the country. They are played by six ridiculously versatile actors, who between them bring to brief though vivid life more than 90 different denizens of this island.

Some of these are work colleagues, for over the years through which Bryson time travels here, he finds various jobs, eventually working on a local newspaper in Bournemouth and then on Nationals in London. Many are wonderfully vivid cameos of rather briefer encounters.

What delicious fun can be shared with the audience by the skilled performer apparently effortlessly switching between roles as wildly varied as ‘WI Woman’ and ‘Soft Porn Actress’! These are just two of the 15 roles played by Bryony Corrigan. Her most telling and substantial role is Cynthia Billen, the warm and understanding psychiatric nurse Bryson meets when they work at the same hospital. She becomes his wife, to whom the much-loved eponymous autobiographical volume is dedicated. She reads aloud to us some of the letters he sends her on his various journeys, as she cares fro their children in their rural home..

The epithet ‘fierce’ falls far short as a description of Wendy Nottingham’s seaside landlady Mrs Smegma, just one of 10 wildly varying roles that she plays, rising magnificently to the challenge of bringing them to comic life in just a few well-chosen lines. Anne Odeke’s 14 vignettes include a wonderfully gormless usherette and a Stonehenge English Heritage Guide almost as stony as her ‘charges’. Steve Pinder also gets to play 14 different parts, but only he actually gets to play God – though he shares the role of Samuel Johnson with Akshay Sharan. It’s Sharan who sets a possible record for multi-role playing – sketching in an extraordinary 24 characters, including Robert Burns and ‘Soft Porn Actor’. Hayden Wood clearly relishes his brief but effective appearance as David Attenborough; his versatile voice also provides a 50s Movie Announcer and ‘Geordie 4′ and 15 more roles too, including guitarist.

All the supporting actors are terrific at putting on (slightly exaggerated) regional accents, to great comic effect and always affectionate rather than simply caricature. If anything, the laugh is on Bryson, who is simply baffled as he tries to understand what on earth they’re saying. If his thesis is that this island is peopled with eccentrics, Bryson is not afraid to be counted as one of their number.

And so over several decades, the diminutive figure of Bryson is our guide to the length and breadth of Britain, as far as Llandudno, Edinburgh and Aberdeen, with maps also back projected as he roams.The choice of destinations here was down to adaptor Tim Whitnall, whose own travels round this Island in Brydon’s footsteps soon became a pilgrimage of delight, though also a stiff challenge for of course he was spoilt for choice. He has the sense to round off Bryson’s travels and travails just short of the point of total exhaustion, for both our guide and for us, as we try to keep up with him over hundreds of miles in just over two hours. I suspect many who have the pleasure of this theatrical journey, will, like me, be inspired to reread Bryson’s notes from this small island.