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Play writing like a pair of amateurs
Published 09/06/14

A TRIP to yhe Watermill for its latest show— hurrah! Time to get out the Watermill kit of essentials: wallet, check. Notebook and pen, check. Bag of superlatives always needed at the Watermill, check. Sadly, this time only the first two were needed. The superlatives will have to wait for another day.

I got to this show two days after press night and had a chance to see another review in The Times. Theatre critic Dominic Maxwell was sour-faced and only gave it two stars. A bit grumpy, I thought, the Watermill doesn’t do two stars, it usually delivers nothing less than four.

I was sure that I would see the funny side, especially as I’d enjoyed the original film with Burt Reynolds, Samantha Bond and Derek Jacobi.

Dominic was right, I’m afraid: A Bunch of Amateurs is fine for an unchallenging night out but we probably all expected more from writers Ian Hislop and Nick Newman, especially after their excellent Wipers Times on TV last year.

This is the story of Hollywood action hero Jefferson Steel whose career is on the ropes. In a last ditch attempt to revive it, he comes to Britain to play King Lear — but he’s been misled and it turns out he will be playing with a village drama group.

So far, so funny, improbable, even impossible, but great material to work with if we’re prepared to swallow it — and I am. But what we get is an unlikely story filled with one-liners and mini-sketches delivered by two-dimensional characters.

Some are funny, some predictable — and some should have been left on the drawing board. For example, the second act opens with someone being absent from a rehearsal but nevertheless managing to have a digital presence through Skype. The rest of the cast greet him on a laptop and we are meant to think that he will take part. This has the potential to be very funny indeed.

But then the whole idea is thrown away as the laptop is closed because not needed in the scene — perhaps it was a triple-bluffed joke, but it seemed like a wasted and undeveloped idea.

We are given caricatures of what we want to believe these people are: Jefferson Steel is a blustery egomaniac raging about his bed and breakfast room not having a gym, jacuzzi and bar. All our prejudices about celebrity and its sense of entitlement are presented and we even get a serious suggestion from Steel that the play needed a rewrite. King Lear, if you please!

All of these things are funny but strung out over a two-hour show they don’t sustain. Perhaps if Jefferson Steel was allowed to put more light and shade into his character it would help.

That said, the staging is innovative and maximises the Watermill’s limited space with its usual ingenuity.

Overall, though, I was left with the feeling that his was still a work in progress.

• Continues to June 28. Box office www.watermill.org.uk

A Bunch of Amateurs

Watermill Theatre

Wednesday, May 28

Mike Rowbottom

PUBLISHED 09/06/14

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