The Wicker Husband is a show that has my heart entirely. A future life is surely going to happen but catch it now at the Watermill Theatre while you can
“I know you cannot hear my pleas
After all you’re just a tree”
If you had a pick a show that would be one of the last you saw before endless months of lockdown robbed you of live theatre, what in the name of Sophie’s Choice would you pick? Of course, none of us knew the full extent of what was coming but there’s a strange blessing for those lucky few who caught the truncated debut of The Wicker Husband, its musical power and vivid theatricality getting to live much longer in the memory as a result.
And almost two years to the day, this gorgeous folk musical has returned to the sylvan surroundings of the Watermill Theatre to conjure its magic once again. I adored the show last time around and Charlotte Westenra’s production (a reboot, a revival, a return?) has lost none of its potency. Adapted from Ursula Wills’ short story, Rhys Jennings’ book and Darren Clark’s music and lyrics work their way right into your soul and rather than offering escapism, suggest enlightenment (if we heed the message).
Delving into folk tradition, Clark’s score (the composer of the exceptional The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) is delightfully melodic and deceptively earwormish (is that the word? we’ll say that’s a word…). And tailored to the actor/muso ensemble here (expertly marshalled by MD Pat Moran), there’s an organic feel that is entirely appropriate. The same is true of Anna Kelsey’s transformative design which seem to draw on the theatre’s surroundings.
Then there’s the puppets. I can’t lie, the wicker husband himself is what my nightmares look like but Finn Caldwell’s design and direction is just superb. And as the story unfolds, as Gemma Sutton’s spiky Ugly Girl further disrupts the community that has rejected her by begging the Old Basketmaker for a husband made from wicker, something heart-warming and then -wrenching happens as George Maguire, Nisha Anil and Sebastian Charles endeavour to make you believe there’s something so real here.
There’s not a weak link in the company – Joseph Alessi and Angela Caesar offering particularly strong work – and Hartley T A Kemp’s lighting design is inspired. In some ways, I yearn for a transfer so that more people can see it. But in others, I want to urge people to see the show here, like this, where it feels so perfectly suited to the space, both outside and in. I felt the same about Amélie the Musical, which ultimately thrived both on tour and in the West End, dare we dream so again?