Review: Leamington's early history is told in resonant new play at the Loft

Nick Le Mesurier reviews Taking the Waters, running until July 23 at the Loft Theatre, Leamington

'Great ensemble playing with some outstanding individual performances' (photo: Richard Smith)
'Great ensemble playing with some outstanding individual performances' (photo: Richard Smith)

To mark the Loft Theatre’s centenary, their Chair and effectively writer in residence David Fletcher, has written and directed a play marking Leamington Spa’s early growth and the dreadful cholera epidemic that swept through it and many other towns in the mid 19th century. The theme is water, bringer of life, but also carrier of death, central to the town’s existence, and the reason for its prosperity.

The story begins in pre-history, with a group of dancers drawing water from the river. We quickly move to the late 18th century and the discovery of the well springs, which at the time were largely free to all, but which quickly become the object of property. Tensions mount in the village, particularly between the good-natured Elizabeth Abbots (Wendy Morris) and the spiteful Widow Webb (Ann Williams). The town quickly prospers on the fashion for taking the waters, and soon has six bathhouses and its own theatre, where Grace (Glynis Fletcher), who acts as narrator to this part of the story, has her day on stage.

So much so bucolic. It’s a charming evocation that brushes over the darker aspects of rural poverty that would have tainted the village. The second half is, by contrast, very much concerned with the contrast between the wealthy inhabitants and visitors who sip upon clean, health-giving water, and the town’s poor, who have only filthy water to drink. Here the action centres upon the cholera epidemic of 1849, and the figures of Gracie’s daughter Lizzie (Helen Dodds) and Walter Watson (Mark Roberts) who, from different stand points, take on the town’s authorities who, though enlightened in some ways, seek above all to avoid alarm.

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    The two halves of the play sit well enough together, but it is the second half that contains the greater drama and is far more compelling.

    Taking The Waters mixes great ensemble playing with some outstanding individual performances. It places Leamington’s history within the broader concepts of advancing knowledge and improved technologies of the day and has resonances with many of today’s concerns.

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