Mark Shenton’s top venues: Watermill Theatre, Newbury
There’s hardly a nicer, more charming or welcoming theatre to visit anywhere than Berkshire’s Watermill Theatre, down a country lane near Newbury in Berkshire. There are lovely grounds with a stream running through them and ducks wandering around the garden. It truly comes into its own in the summer months, where you can sit out in the garden before the show or during the interval. But it’s a pleasure to visit at any time of the year, not least because it offers a complete package in one place: a terrific restaurant and bar adjoin the theatre, so although not a dinner theatre as such, you can make a full evening of it.
And it really is a mill, with a still churning waterwheel at the back of the theatre auditorium. According to the theatre’s history on its website, the existence of a mill at Bagnor is recorded in the Domesday Book and the 1830 building it is now housed in has served as a corn mill, a fullers mill and a fine paper mill before it was converted to a theatre, with its first professional season in 1967. It was the labour of love of David Gollins and his mother Judy Gollins.
In 1981 Jill Fraser and her husband James Sargant, purchased the theatre, and set about transforming it from a local part-time rep, operating 26 weeks a year, into a year-round producing house. Her artistic vision – and the relationships she forged with directors such as John Doyle and Edward Hall, and giving early breaks to directors like Timothy Sheader and Jonathan Munby – saw it become a home for smart small-scale musical revivals and Hall’s all-male Propeller Shakespeare company. Doyle’s actor-musician production of Sweeney Todd that originated here went onto the West End, as did his subsequent staging of Jerry Herman’s Mack and Mabel, with Sweeney also going on to Broadway.
Propeller’s shows, meanwhile, have toured extensively across the UK and beyond to 21 other countries, and included a West End run for Rose Rage (a truncated version of The Wars of the Roses) at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket.
But Fraser fell ill and subsequently died in 2006, aged 59. An appeal was launched to enable the board of trustees to buy the theatre from her husband and estate, and establish it as an independent entity. It has continued to thrive, first under artistic director Hedda Beeby from 2007 to 2015, and now with Paul Hart at the helm.
Commercial partnerships have continued, with Jamie Wilson (soon to be profiled by me in The Stage) launching a hugely successful tour of Calamity Jane there in 2014. It was seen by 220,00 people nationwide and a revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Tell Me on a Sunday, which likewise starred Jodie Prenger. Now Wilson is co-producing a revival of Crazy for You with Tom Chambers and Caroline Sheen, to be reviewed in The Stage next week, for which a national tour is also planned.
I simply love visiting the Watermill. It may not be the easiest to get to by public transport – it’s best to drive, but you can take a train ride to Newbury, then a cab from there – but it’s worth the time and effort.
The Watermill Theatre
Bagnor, Newbury RG20 8AE
Box office 01635 46044
Administration 01635 45834
Artistic and executive director Paul Hart
Associate producer Hedda Beeby
General manager Clare Lindsay
Finance manager Faramade Rees
Development director Jo Bycroft
Production manager Lawrence T Doyle
Company manager Sara Shardlow
Wardrobe Amanda Dooley
Outreach director Heidi Bird
Front of house manager Julie Ann Jones
Catering manager Clement Otieno
Box office manager Julie Copping
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