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The Witches of Eastwick (Newbury, Watermill)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

It might have been Desperate Housewives – The Musical had it not been the musical version of the film of the book by John Updike. The musical itself has had a number of incarnations and appears here with choreography and direction by Craig Revel-Horwood.

In the stereotypical New England town of Eastwick, a place of clapperboard houses and clapperboard mindsets, nothing much happens to the bored inhabitants other than unhappy marriages or divorces.

Poppy Tierney, Alex Bourne, Joanna Hickman & Tiffany Graves
© Philip Tull

Three desperate, divorced and bored housewives, Alexandra Spofford (Poppy Tierney), Jane Smart (Joanna Hickman) and Sukie Rougemont (Tiffany Graves] form a cabal in which to express their frustrations and their shared desire for "all manner of man in one man".  Over martinis and peanut-butter brownies they casually conjure up the man of all their fancies.

Meanwhile, Felicia Gabriel (Rosemary Ashe), harridan owner of the local newspaper, is anxious for the deserted Lenox Mansion to be bought for preservation and to ensure its wetlands for the Egrets, though she's equally keen on preserving what was her former family seat.

She's furious to learn that the place has been sold to a charismatic and devilish stranger Darryl Van Horne, played here with equally devilish smiles and a louche demeanour by Alex Bourne (Fred/Petruchio in Chichester's recent "Kiss Me Kate'').

Darryl seduces each of the three "witches" in turn and shows them how to expand the powers locked inside of them through a ménage à quatre that scandalises the town. As their power grows, Darryl's corrupting influence pushes them into murder and the coven resolve to use their powers to rid themselves of this Prince of Darkness.

Revel-Horwood makes superb use the Watermill's trade-mark actor/musicians and Tom Rogers' design, with wisteria embracing the auditorium's balconies, suggests vistas of New England, finds room for percussion and pianos, sitting rooms, bedrooms and a meeting room, yet still with plenty of space for fourteen actors to sing and dance their hearts out.

The choreography never feels cramped in the Watermill's confines, quite a feat with so many moving and playing at the same time. There's even a lovely trick as the three witches are lifted into the air by Daryl's magic.

While Dana Rowe's music and John Dempsey's lyrics are not memorable, they certainly match the action and move the plot along. The devil, of course, always has all the best tunes and Bourne swaggers magnificently through "Dance with the Devil" and "Who's the Man?" though he's rather more sleazy than suave in this production.

The three women are each given a distinct persona as artist, writer and musician, with songs to match. It's a delight to watch Hickman singing and dancing while playing the ‘cello, to hear Graves belting out her numbers and to see Tierney leading the girls making one hell of a mess in a stage-manager's nightmare involving potter's clay.

Rosemary Ashe, reprising the role of Felicia Gabriel, uses her fine operatic voice to great comic effect, even when spluttering out feathers and golf balls. Jeffrey Harmer elicits sympathy as Felicia's long-suffering (and unfaithful!) husband.

Naomi Petersen and Ross William Wild's young lovers are delightfully American as apple-pie and CiCi Howells, tossing blonde tresses and sporting Lolita-type heart-shaped shades, is delicious in four cameo roles.

The combination of Craig Revel-Horwood's magic and a bewitching cast make this show about as good as it is going to get.

  - Judi Herman