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The Wicker Husband review – puppets weave a feisty fable for our times | Stage

Just after many UK theatres announced indefinite closures on Monday night, Paul Hart, the Watermill’s artistic director, took to the stage to confirm that The Wicker Husband would go ahead as planned. The show-must-go-on moment carried the poignancy and weight of the impending interregnum of darkness.

A folk musical based on a short story by Ursula Wills-Jones but with a feistier ending, The Wicker Husband follows a lonely fisherwoman, derisively named Ugly Girl by villagers and ostracised for being a misfit. She makes friends with a basket-weaver who, like a rustic Dr Frankenstein, has the power to weave beings into creation. He weaves her a wicker husband and this union sparks sexual jealousies and tribal antipathies among the townsfolk.

As a story about insider parochialism, the demonising of outsiders and the tyranny of conformity in village life, it bears echoes of Brexit Britain. But the musical – which has a book by Rhys Jennings – steers away from outright parallels on the whole. It is located in a world of yokel archetypes (characters are simply named Tailor, Cobbler, Old Basketmaker, etc), and has all the fabular edges of a children’s folk tale. “Once upon a withy on the edge of a deep dark swamp,” the cast sings.

The only open reference to today comes towards the end when the town’s evil plan against Ugly Girl (Laura Johnson) is foiled. “You said we’d take back control,” says the Cobbler to the Tailor’s Wife.

There are magical moments in The Wicker Husband yet weaknesses, too: characterisation is so flat that the villagers are dastardly to the point of cartoonishness. There are affecting lyrics but some of the “diddly-di” ditties lack depth, though the Cobbler’s Wife (Angela Caesar) lifts her lines with her bawdy, no-nonsense deliveries.

What brings Charlotte Westenra’s production flaring to life is Darren Clark’s balladic music, strong singing voices and lively musicianship (guitars, violins, a whistle, and live sound effects). Johnson as Ugly Girl brings emotional drama to her songs, from the romantic yearning in My Wicker Man to Have You Seen My Husband when catastrophe strikes her wicker lover.

Other cast members do the same: Julian Forsyth as the Old Basketmaker has an unfortunate comic resemblance to Worzel Gummidge but he sings with plaintive power; and the otherwise conniving Tailor’s Wife (Zoë Rainey) wrings sadness from a song about the loss of her baby.

It is a bold move to cast a puppet in a lead part and the handsome, six-foot “wicker husband” puppet designed by Finn Caldwell is a beguiling presence, with flowers growing from his weave and a childlike gaucheness combined with romantic devotion to Ugly Girl. (Puppeteers Yazdan Qafouri, Eilon Morris and Scarlet Wilderink manipulate him and speak his lines.)

There is a charming menagerie of animals, too, including scuttling mice, a skylark and a tail-wagging dog, all made of wicker. It is these puppets that steal the show.

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