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Nostalgia comes to Newbury with premiere of Bill Bryson’s tribute to Blighty





World premiere of Tim Whitnall’s stage adaptation of Bill Bryson’s smash-hit Notes from a Small Island at The Watermill, Bagnor, until March 18, reviewed by NIKI HINMAN

Nostalgia abounds in The Watermill’s adaptation of Bill Bryson’s tribute to the national identity of Ol’ Blighty.

Although Notes from a Small Island – which starts with Bill’s arrival in Dover amid strikes, inflation and power cuts – certainly draws a link to Britain today.

Notes from a Small Island, picture Marc Brenner
Notes from a Small Island, picture Marc Brenner

The conclusion, which forms the closing lines of Tim Whitnall’s theatrical adaptation, feels especially timely, given our current national vogue for self-loathing:

“Here is a country that... did nearly everything right – and then spent the rest of the century looking on itself as a chronic failure.”

The play from the The Sunday Times best-sellers list book had its world premiere stage adaptation at the Newbury theatre last week.

Notes from a Small Island, picture Marc Brenner
Notes from a Small Island, picture Marc Brenner

It celebrates one of the nation’s most beloved books on the quirks of our small island and those living in it.

The unabashed Anglophile that is Bill Bryson takes us on a journey the length and breadth of Britain, from the quirky grottiness of seaside BnBs to the Yorkshire Dales, all cleverly visualised with video and animation projections.

Bill Bryson, born and bred in Iowa, first came to England in 1973 and stayed on for nearly 20 years,

Notes from a Small Island pic Marc Brenner
Notes from a Small Island pic Marc Brenner

In 1992, he embarked on a farewell walking tour of Britain, having decided to move back to America for a while with his wife and children.

In The Watermill’s production the author’s good nature shines through helped by a decent cast and clever staging.

Mark Hadfield plays a good lookey-likey Bill Bryson supported by an almost vaudevillian supporting cast playing roles ranging from BnB guests, a group of shell-suited Geordies and some starry-eyed shoppers enjoying the newly-created delights of Milton Keynes.

Notes from a Small Island, picture Marc Brenner
Notes from a Small Island, picture Marc Brenner

Hadfield’s avuncular performance was marred by script stumbles, but he somehow got away with it – largely as he had to deliver most of the play’s lines.

Anne Odeke stands out in the supporting cast, adding some beautifully-timed comic performances.

Her dead-pan cinema usherette offering cola cubes for 3p and a Kia Ora orange drink for 7p was both funny and a fond, nostalgic hark back to dates at the local flea pit.

Notes from a Small Island pic Marc Brenner
Notes from a Small Island pic Marc Brenner

Director Paul Hart’s production sees Bryson’s role in the 1986 Wapping dispute and revisits the sanatorium where he’d also worked, horrified to discover its conversion into a gated development for the well-heeled.

All in all, Notes from the Small Island presents an informative, personal and mostly warm portrait of this island and its inhabitants. It allows us – the British – to agree how lovable we really are and prompts food for thought for our island’s shifting sense of place and purpose in the global village.



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