The Miser (Newbury, Watermill Theatre)

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
’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 …

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

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
and clowning from almost everyone in the commedia
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
’ gloriously funny performance.

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