Over the years The Watermill has brought us phenomenal, creative productions, many of which have gone on to tour the country and transfer to the West End. Now showing until March 18 is the world premiere of Bill Bryson’s bestseller ‘Notes from a Small Island’, which BBC Radio 4 listeners voted as the book that best represents our British identity.
Adapted for the stage by Tim Whitnall, the play captures Bryson’s nostalgia and his quest to celebrate what is quintessentially British. We follow his odyssey across the length and breadth of Britain over several decades, starting in 1973 when the young Bryson first arrived from the US, and ending in the 90’s.
Mark Hadfield, the actor playing Bryson, is a Bryson lookalike, and is on stage for the whole time. His confiding, wry humorous tone develops his relationship with the audience as he struggles with the language – what exactly is a ‘counterpane?’, as he meets a variety of eccentric characters, as he becomes nostalgic for ‘flowerbeds on roundabouts’, and ‘Post offices in villages,’ and as he struggles with the vagaries of the weather and transport.
Involving over eighty costume changes, six other actors play all the other characters Bryson meets on his journey – the gormless cinema attendant, the boring train nerd, the haughty, petty landlady, officious Stonehenge and Blenheim Palace attendants, the plain speaking Yorkshire man – to name but a few.
The set, with the help of back projection, portrays Bryson’s journey from the white cliffs of Dover to John O’Groats, with a particularly idyllic picture of the Yorkshire dales – Bryson’s home for many years.
The play ends with Bryson’s homage to Britain – “This is still the best place in the world for most things – to post a letter, go for a walk, watch television, buy a book, venture out for a drink, go to a museum, use a bank, get lost, seek help, or stand on a hillside and take in a view.”
Perhaps this is reminder that we are in danger of losing some of these things. Tim Whitnall, also comments, “As we heal and rebuild following the ravages of the past three years, the play also gently reminds us that being British allows us plenty to be grateful for. To quote Bill: ‘You have plenty to eat, you live in a time of peace, and you can rest easy in the knowledge that “Tie A Yellow Ribbon” will never be Number One again.’”
While ‘Notes from a Small Island’ may not be one of the best productions shown at The Watermill – the script becomes rather wordy and unwieldy in places and there was a good deal of distracting furniture shifting for scene changes – it is nonetheless entertaining and the audience, many I suspect Bryson fans, responded with enthusiasm.
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