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Gormenghast

Mervyn Peake, adapted by John Constable
The Watermill Young Company
The Watermill Newbury

Oliver Norman and the Young Company Gormenghast Credit: Philip Tull
Emile Butler, Oliver Norman,Chrissy Lightowler Credit: Philip Tull
Oscar Saint and Oliver Norman Credit: Philip Tull

Bringing Mervyn Peake’s fantasy thriller Gormenghast, adapted by John Constable, to the stage is a daunting task.

The epic Gothic plot is complex but director Seamus Allen has skilfully distilled the essence of the play and has created a highly accomplished production with the Watermill Young Company.

The strong ensemble work is impressive with striking visual images that capture the magical, mysterious world of the House of Groan.

Toots Butcher’s stark, dark design cleverly uses every bit of the Watermill’s stage to create battlements with ladders littering the space and a library that is revealed underneath through a gauze.

The play follows the fortunes of Titus (Olivia Snell), the 77th Earl of Groan, who is destined to become the heir to the throne. William Barrett is imposing as Barquentine, the Master of the Ritual, which has to be performed daily.

To help him, he takes on Steerpike, a powerful performance by Oliver Norman, as an assistant. His ambition is overwhelming as he struggles to climb from his service as a kitchen-boy and escape the cleaver weaving Swelter, the cook (Nial Madden-Blain) to achieve power with bloody results.

The Countess (Rebecca Chadder), surrounded by cats, tries to keep a tight grip on the household following the death of her husband Lord Sepulchrave (Samuel Steele-Child).

Titus’s aunts, the twin sisters Lady Clarice (Emilie Butler) and Lady Cora (Chrissy Lightowler), are kept captive by Steerpike who supplies all their needs, but they meet a horrible end.

Oscar Saint is splendid as the loyal, watchful servant Flay who sees through Steerpike’s murderous intentions and helps to bring about his downfall with help from Dr Prunesquallor (Albie Embleton).

As a flood begins to submerge the kingdom, the mud dwellers seek refuge in the castle and Lady Fuschia (Maia Brown) falls from the battlements to an untimely death.

There is excellent support from a well-drilled chorus who have great stage presence and a feral wild girl (Florence Bound) who embodies freedom.

Special mention for Josh Robinson’s emotive, powerful musical score that drives the narrative forward.

This is a challenging, atmospheric production, impressively realised by a talented cast of young people.

Reviewer: Robin Strapp