Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

newspaper scene

The newspaper scene, perhaps not entirely a success.

Pictures: Richard Smith Photography

Taking the Waters

The Loft, Leamington Spa


When you’re invited to a David Fletcher play at The Loft, whose latest, a charming extravaganza to celebrate the theatre’s centenary with events in the history of Leamington Spa, you pack up whatever you’re doing and hurry there.

David has written six plays for the theatre, plus various adaptations of leading literary figures (Wilfred Owen, for one). I saw, and especially, heard his stage piece The Ballad of Lady Bessy, about Elizabeth of York (future wife of Lancastrian Henry VII) – a masterpiece - which you can find, a really rewarding listen, and a strikingly accurate historical re-enactment, HERE

I’ve just listened to it, and it’s a stunning – and deeply atmospheric – evocation of a vexed and dangerous period in English history – the build up to the seizure of the throne by Richard III. Also, it was beautifully enhanced by Jonathan Fletcher’s music, or selection of serene Tudor lute melodies. Jonathan has composed or arranged numerous productions since Sophocles in 2002. I’m afraid this was not one of his best. In fact the music struck me as distinctly naff. 

David directs his own plays, with the sort of precision and inventiveness one always salutes The Loft for. And in total nearly 30 other plays. What a collection they make. Many till 2006 (Hamlet); and many again since 2015 (Chekhov’s Three Sisters). 

The Theban Plays. The Trial of Queen Caroline. Salomé (Oscar Wilde, needs great skill and subtlety – witness Steven Berkoff), Wozzeck. Plenty of tragedy or darkness in the Fletcher canon.  Conversely, two Under Milk Wood, one just after he joined the Company in 1985. Invariably a Fletcher event is a treat.

Now, to the latest. The slight reservation is that historical chronicles, running through the years, can be a bit limp. Not here, perhaps; but it is a danger. The second doubt is that whereas the first half generates a fascinating, or certainly involving, sequence of events surrounding the emergence of Leamington from the small village, Leamington Priors, dating back in similar name to the Conqueror, into an 18th and 19th Spa town – rivalling Cheltenham, for instance, and Tunbridge Wells, which also sport magnificent Regency buildings.


Jasmine Hutchings as the delectable Gracie

Leamington has always lain, logically, alongside the River Leam, originally on the south side. The springs (hence Fletcher’s appropriate title, Taking the Waters, were discovered, or, rediscovered, in 1784 by William Abbotts and Benjamin Satchwell, both delightfully, and commandingly, played by Graham Buckingham-Underhill (who later made a very impressive and congenial magistrate) and Mark Roberts, of whom more later.

Dance, or in some cases one might prefer to call it Movement (Rachel Adams is rightly credited as Movement, not Choreographer), plays quite a regular a role, indeed provides a good many interludes. Such dance was – aptly - of the entertaining village type. What made it was the exquisite costumes (wardrobe as often, the blissfully imaginative Helen Brady and Helen Jellicoe.) Long dresses the order of the day; and charming headgear too. As a guide, what might one compare them to? The Crucible, perhaps, though these were most carefully anchored in the 18th, then 19th century. You might have thought a great deal of research had gone into them. One always feels that about the Loft.

The direction? Exits and entrances – each scene seamlessly running into the next - were slick, brisk and accomplished. One might say enjambed, flowing effortlessly one into another.  

Props were competently and ably installed and removed. Those moments when Fletcher freezes the characters were well judged and successful. Sometimes it was blockings, especially of the chorus, that helped create an impression. The choral speaking was often rather fine.

One item I deemed a palpable failure. Half a dozen characters emerged with newspapers, reading about latest events, presumably the local evolution of the waters (hence Taking the Waters). No problem with that: rather a good idea. Then this happened four or five times or more. Identically – no alteration of their place on the stage. This blocking wasn’t very interesting at the start, and it got less interesting serving as an interlude each time. I’d never call this production boring, but here it was.

Dr Hitchman and Liz

Dr. John Hitchman (Maurice Smith) hobnobs with and

Elizabeth Abbotts (Wendy Morris) 

And behind all this, set designer Roger Abbott adapted the large cyclorama as a series (quite a long series, all desirable) of monochrome photos of Leamington from the earliest days of photography: later than the actual events, of course, but still wholly appropriate as a picture of Leamington at the time. These images added a great deal to the atmosphere. Indeed, mostly they were awesomely appropriate.

There was an extensive cast, rather good as it gave opportunity to many of the company. Abbotts’ wife, Elizabeth (Wendy Morris – ‘Her generosity filled our young hearts’) was one actress who constantly provided entertainment: a serious lady, if perhaps a little simple. But well cast.      

Jasmine Hutchings was admirable in both her roles: Part One, Gracie, Part Two, Mary. In each, her determination shone through. Gracie would happily have taken on and admonished any of the cast. Mary, devoted to her doctor father, seemed utterly convincing – both in Fletcher’s text and in her interpretation. Two characters each of whom made total sense; and were utterly realistic. 

Another character, quite the opposite, was Widow Webb, whom Ann Williams presented (as the author intended) as a right cow, whose objectionable personality was summed up ideally by ‘You’re stealing my water.’ I think it’s she who also says ‘water is what I do; and I’ve got less of it because of you.’ She has no difficulty in taking on the whole community. Extraordinary, then, that she ultimately volunteers to join forces with Wendy Morris’ rather reticent Elizabeth, who deplores the fact that the poor are obliged to draw water from the disease-inducing River Leam, and who, it turns out, is not incapable of taking a decision. And how superb Williams proved when she reappeared in Act 2 as a magically professorial Professor.

Who else was there? Jasmine Hutchings’ sweet young Gracie was re-enacted, in her much older self, by Glynis Fletcher (one of three Fletchers involved, one way or another, in the production).

The fact that the staging started gloriously with her as the older (or old), Grace, with radiant and luminous speaking, was owed wholly to her. She remained as a marvellous narrator till, as she told us, she abandoned, for a time, her introductory role.

Young Joe (Henri West), a well-behaved soul, had a good stab as a young suitor, who weds Gracie (would he really?), albeit a bit, not quite wooden, as he exuded charm and joy and marriageability. And two years ago, Gracie (now Grace) has lost him.

  mark as Doc Watson

Mark Roberts as Dr. Walter Watson is advised by

Dr. Lloyd (Jeremy Heynes)

Helen Dodds’ Charlotte (‘Charlie’) brought life and shine to an energetic sequence, gorgeously – as always, astutely, articulately scripted by David Fletcher and spiffingly directed too (her pair of assenting, echoing girl assistants was a hoot). She sparkled, and brought bubble and fizz and effervescence to her appearance. And clearly glee to the admiring crowd.

Maurice Smith took on several roles, as well as being a key figure in the dancing, but most importantly as Dr. Hitchman, slightly Widow Webb-like, but to be fair not merely destructive, but having a different view of how things should proceed with regard to the  evolution of Leamington Spa’s development.

Hitchman can count on some support, but not in the ‘Trial’, here presided over by Buckingham-Underhill’s shrewd, urbane magistrate (or at least Chairman, or Clerk?), Mr. Clark. On the right, or winning side was Jeremy Heynes’ Dr. Lloyd, possibly the best spoken (as so often), and forceful, and distinctively determined to back up the alternative view, which will ultimately win.    

I’ve left Mark Roberts till last. Why? Because for me he was the most impressive, illustrious, singular, prominent and noteworthy performance. Not just in Act 1 as the decent, charitable Benjamin Satchwell, who (with Buckingham-Underhill’s distinguished William Abbotts) rediscovered Leamington’s Spa waters in 1784 and within two years had invalids arriving in search of a cure. As well, he proposes to set up a charity. He’s that type.

But his Dr. William Watson after initial persuasion was encouraged to join main characters of an evolving team, in which he will play the key part. Things evolve at an alarming, or enhancing, rate. The first Bath House, for which he battled against opposition, was, we learn, founded in 1788, and another in 1791. (In 1804, Grace tells us, she was still in her twenties.) More advances bring additional hope in 1813.

Everything about Roberts’ performance, in both his roles, but especially in the longer part as Watson, stood out a mile. First of all, his dignity and honesty, and his determination to do right by the people of Leamington, then a village expanding into a substantial town. His empathy for the poor. He has been serving Leamington for 12 years, we learn. And when cholera breaks out, he is one (Jeremy Heynes’ Dr. Lloyd, who opts firmly to back him, is another) who insists on dealing with it as soon as possible, to counteract those who assert, grotesquely, that Leamington ‘is contagion-free’; and sees that the newly uncovered water source, which Roberts’ other considerate role, Satchwell, has discovered, has a role to play.

Roberts’ dealings with any character who crosses his way is warm, kindly, supportive, caring: the kind of GP we’d all love to have. He is the most inventive of the cast: the variety of the ways he uses his hands, eyes, brows, neck, and indeed every distinctive move, one lauds, and earns from me the award for this staging. His Watson is a man of eminence who has no conceit whatsoever. There is much the others could learn from the detail of his acting. Roberts gives us an eminently gracious and virtuous man, and one who patently and patiently listens not least to his perceptive young daughter, Mary (Jasmine Hutchings in her second enchantingly enacted role). 

It was performances like this – Roberts’ - that can uplift a play; even take it to the top; and indeed – for me - he did so. Is Taking the Waters a success? Well, this was The Loft. So with those few reservations, of course it is. To 23-07-22.

Roderic Dunnett


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