From the second that the new Watermill theatre production of "Martin Guerre" begins through to its final chilling note, the audience is totally captivated in the atmosphere of a spine-tingling dramatic and musical world that represents all that is best in musical theatre. In the Watermill's intimate space - with the aid of Diego Pitarch's highly effective set, Richard G. Jones's evocative and atmospheric lighting and Sarah Travis's beautifully crafted orchestrations - a group of 12 talented actor-musicians under the masterful direction of Craig Revel Horwood succeed in not only telling a story that tears everyone's emotions apart but also in creating a musical sound that is quite beautiful throughout.
The story, set in the Pyrenean village of Artigat amidst the religious wars of the 16th century, involves a young Martin Guerre, forced into a marriage with Bertrande du Rols in order to secure a Catholic heir to the family land. Martin abandons his young bride and runs off to fight in the war, where he meets and befriends Arnaud du Thil. After the horror of battle, in which Arnaud believes Martin has been killed, Arnaud decides to head off to Artigat, where he is mistaken for a returning Martin and assumes his identity until personal jealousies, family politics and the terror of religious persecution combine to lead the story to a traumatic climax.
"Martin Guerre" has what is arguably Claude-Michel Schonberg's most haunting and lavish score. But previous incarnations of the musical (at the Prince Edward Theatre in 1997 and the West Yorkshire Playhouse in 1999) never succeeded in taking the show to the mega-musical status of Schonberg and Alain Boublil's other masterworks - "Les Miserables" and "Miss Saigon". The new production is different to all previous versions - though reverting musically for the most part to the original West End version, many of the lyrics have been rewritten (by Boublil in collaboration with Stephen Clark, Declan Donnellan and "Les Mis" lyricist, Herbert Kretzmer), structural changes have been made to the plot and spoken dialogue has been inserted in places to replace "recitative" song. Everything is much tighter dramatically now and there is far more tension created by the fact that Bertrande does not know that the impostor, Arnaud, is not her returning husband, Martin, until the trial scene in Act Two.
Even more crucial to the transformation of this show from one that does not quite work to one that works incredibly well is Craig Revel Horwood's direction. He manages to create a mix of tension, intrigue and humour that makes the show a thrilling theatrical experience. At times he uses his actor-musicians' instruments as functional props - the village simpleton Benoit's instrument serves also as his beloved doll, Louison; Martin's nemesis, Guillaume uses a cello bow as a menacing blade; the teenage Martin frenetically rushes to crash cymbals to express his rage and frustration. The direction of the love scenes between Arnaud and Bertrande have a sensual edge that give them a genuine ring of truth. And the staging of the scene/song "Thank God You're Here" - where the villagers, family and eventually a tentative and strangely captivated Bertrande greet Arnaud as the returning Martin - is a master class in choreographic story-telling.
Karen Mann, Rosie Timpson and Susannah van den Berg bring the house down with their perfectly poised comic rendition of "Sleeping On Our Own"; Kelly O'Leary gives a touching and emotional performance as Bertrande; Jez Unwin's Guillaume is genuinely menacing; Kit Orton's beautifully toned voice adds effectively to his sympathetic performance as the Protestant, Andre and his exquisite violin playing richly adorns much of the show's underscore; Johnson Willis makes the role of Benoit credible, deftly avoiding the temptation to make him a cliched clown; James Traherne (Pierre Guerre), Esther Biddle (Catherine) and Michael Howcroft (Father Dominic/Judge) provide solid support with their fine acting, singing and musicianship; Ben Goddard is perhaps the best Arnaud I have seen, both vocally and dramatically; and Andrew Bevis creates a Martin who is totally convincing -as tormented boy and battle scarred man - and his rendition of the show's title song is breathtaking.
Bevis's performance epitomises what is so right about the entire show - it is believable and compelling. This production deserves to transfer to a small West End venue. But, in the event that it does not, anyone who loves musical theatre should find their way to Newbury.