On 16th March two events were happening near simultaneously. In Whitehall Boris Johnson was giving his first daily Covid briefing, informing millions that they should avoid trips to theatres, cinema and other venues. And in the beautiful Watermill auditorium a press night was happening for their years-in-the-making musical The Wicker Husband. Theatres across the land soon closed their doors and have stayed shut since.
190 days later at the Watermill is back open (after a stop-gap of a pair of hit open-air shows in the venue’s garden). A lot has changed but for this critic it is an unexpected delight to even be able to sit down and enjoy a piece of theatre in 2020, which seemed an unlikely possibility even a few weeks ago. But what have the Watermill chosen for their return to in-house productions? They’ve brought back a previous hit, one-man noir thriller Bloodshot.
First debuting in April 2011, the piece tells the story of a former police photographer who is tasked by an anonymous figure (he receives unmarked envelopes with instructions and cash periodically) to follow a woman and covertly take pictures of her. This leads into a mystery that takes in murder, the seedy underbelly of post-War London and the racial politics of the era. What unfolds is a remarkably slick affair mixing genre tropes (a script brimming with the expected noir dialogue, a hard-drinking protagonist, a series of sordid suspects to visit) with a nice line in understated humour and occasional bursts of vaudeville magic and music.
It is a perfect slice of nostalgia to help you escape 2020 for a few hours. If I wasn’t quite sold on Douglas Post’s script (it is, perhaps, a tad overwritten) the production is expertly put together by the team. Simon Slater gives a tour-de-force of a performance, effortlessly jumping between characters, able to play a saxophone and perform magic tricks, whilst developing a winning rapport with the audience that can eke out laughter even from a single look in our direction. He plays a deeply sad character, managing to keep the pathos on his side even if he’s not a particularly likeable figure.
Director Patrick Sandford crafts an impressive theatrical work around the performer, using all that the theatre has to offer. Agnes Dewhurst’s set is modest but uses the space effectively, with props hidden in convenient locations. It marries well with the light, sound and projected backdrops that make Bloodshot a technical marvel. You can see why this piece has spent a decade touring the world as it very much demonstrates why theatre is an art form like few others. It’s intimate and personal, drawing us in and immersing the audience in the narrative. Bloodshot is everything that I’ve missed in the past few theatre-free months.
The Watermill Theatre have met the moment and adapted their venue for the challenges it faces. To be back in their auditorium (socially distanced with red bows on chairs ready to be unwrapped when the time is right) is an oddly emotional experience, like returning home. There’s a reason why this reviewer has been here numerous times in the past few years, guaranteed a warm welcome and exceptionally staged productions. It remains to be seen what the rest of 2020 brings, but in these uncertain times being able to go the theatre feels like a sweet relief.