On the day when Donald Trump’s victory devastated most of the world outside America, a production of a classic American fable, Calamity Jane, seemed somehow weirdly reassuring and appropriate. OK, the real Calamity Jane was probably illiterate, promiscuous and an alcoholic, but that didn’t stop her becoming an example of the best the Wild West could produce, male or female. Not, it has to be said, Trump’s idea of womanhood, thank God, but a sassy, sharp-shooting survivor in tough times and one hell of a sweet singer! But hey, this isn’t a history perspective. Let’s move to the Waterside Theatre.
You have to hand it to these guys. The theatre is a vast space, previously a cinema that may even have shown the original Calamity Jane movie in the ’fifties, and its proscenium stage is a big space to fill with an uncompromising auditorium of three hundred plus seats all on the same level. And it was cold! But the enthusiasm of the Waterside Musical Society brings instant warmth and intimacy from the opening bars of the orchestra under musical director, Chris Talbot, and after that we are away with favourites you just can’t stop tapping to: from ‘The Deadwood stage’ to ‘Windy city’. For some of us, this will definitely be a trip down nostalgia lane, but hopefully these tunes will also gain new fans among those under sixty or so.
Above all, this is the work of a brilliant director, David Putley. He gets every single member of his cast involved at every moment. You can check each one out at any time and be the role big or small, that player is engaged. That takes tenacity, patience and encouragement.
The lead roles, Wendy Burgess (Calamity Jane) and Chris Wortley (Bill Hickok) are faultless. Wendy’s physical energy, every muscle of her tensioned frame always supporting her spunky singing, is a joy. Chris’s volume and projection grew as his role progressed and similarly won our hearts.
Clare Crayton as Katie Brown iss a delight and James Hale as Danny Gilmartin a suitably gauche admirer. Hannah Warlock as Susan Needham and Dean Attard as Francis Fryer make another touching pairing although for this reviewer’s taste, the ladies are the stars. And in that context, in, Lisa Phillips as Jo the Barmaid, although a minor role, is brilliant.
All this against a constantly changing backdrop: it is not easy to create fluidity and atmosphere in such a rigid space, but the set creation of Catherine Leach, Christobel Thomas, Alan Goodes and Mike Phillips wors wonders. Lighting and special effects from Tony Lawther and Dave Edwards enhance these sets, while the costumes by Peggy Kemp, Kath Vicarey, Heather Watton, Christobel Thomas, Pat Goodes, Muriel Abbott and Lisa Phillips are spirited and seductive.
You’ll leave this production humming along again to ‘The black hills of Dakota’, to ‘The Deadwood stage’, to ‘Secret love’, and if that ain’t an antidote to Trump and a triumph for true democracy, the end must truly be nigh. You have until Saturday evening to check it out for yourself.