“A parable that certainly stands the test of time, its shadows crossing the centuries and still looming large today”
If you (falsely) confess to the charges levelled at you – your life is spared. If you (truthfully) deny them, even though the evidence is based on little more than mass hysteria, you will be hanged. A warped message, but one that resonates today, albeit in an exaggerated way. Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” is based on the Salem witch trials of the 1690s but he openly presented it as an allegory for McCarthyism, when the US government persecuted people accused of being communists. Lyndsey Turner’s atmospheric revival stays faithful to Miller’s seventy-year-old classic, while allowing the audience to draw their own parallels with our contemporary world of cancel culture, social media groupthink and perceptions of reality. It sounds heady stuff, but the beauty of Turner’s interpretation is that these worries are triggered by straightforward, authentic and, at times, chilling drama.
There is no safety curtain in this production. Instead, a wall of rain pre-sets the action that unfolds on Es Devlin’s simple and sepulchral set. Tim Lutkin’s lighting casts whispers of horror while Tingying Dong’s soundscape illuminates the menace with the aural equivalent of dying candles. The young girls, innocent in appearance, writhe in unison, led by ringleader Abigail (a compelling Milly Alcock). It matters not whether their possession by the devil is real or not. The fatal effects on their elders – the supposedly authoritative members of society – are what propels the narrative. The outcome is guided by superstitions, and by unenlightened minds that eschew truth and reason in favour of their self-interested goals. The familiarity is sometimes uncomfortable as the focus regularly shifts from the accused to the accusers. The term ‘witch-hunt’ has become such a cliché, but Turner’s rich interpretation refreshes it without uprooting it from its origins.
The heart of the story, and it’s strongest moments of pathos, stem from joint protagonists John Proctor and his wife, Elizabeth. Despite John’s dubious backstory and the marital discord, it is the redemptive qualities of their relationship that restores our faith and offers a fragile hope. Brian Gleeson has the charisma to marry Proctor’s rebellious defiance with a gentle dignity, ultimately admitting guilt to protect his wife and children. Caitlin Fitzgerald’s Elizabeth has a matching dignity, made stronger by the knocks it needs to withstand. Their scene together towards the climax of the show is a quiet moment of heartbreak that stands out above the wolflike baying.
Milly Alcock’s manipulative Abigail swings from endearing to malicious in a captivating performance, matched by Nia Towle’s Mary Warren, a fellow accuser who, too late, shows flashes of conscience. The voices of reason are mercifully heard above the clamour. Such as Tilly Tremayne’s Rebecca Nurse and Karl Johnson’s tragicomic portrayal of Giles Corey who exposes alternative motives for the trials. Accusations fly as irrationality poses as righteousness. Fisayo Akinade’s Reverend John Hale both embodies and exposes this in a remarkable performance that pins down disillusionment in the face of corruption and abuse.
At just under three hours the pace never seems slow. Miller’s language – its rhythms and patterns – can take the credit, but it has to share it with a tremendous company that honours the writer’s intentions. A parable that certainly stands the test of time, its shadows crossing the centuries and still looming large today. This revival is as dark as those shadows but is a shining example of how theatre can light up our lives.
THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE at the New Victoria Theatre | UK Tour
“a wealth of eye catching staging and sound effects”
The Ocean at the End of the Lane, based on Neil Gaiman’s book of the same title, adapted by Joel Horwood, and directed by Katy Rudd, will not disappoint Gaiman fans. This production, which opened at the National Theatre in 2019, is now touring at the New Victoria Theatre in Woking. This show is a treat for those who enjoy spectacle. It has a wealth of eye catching staging and sound effects, plus a seamless merging of human actors and puppets of all shapes and sizes. The story is about a twelve year old boy, told from his perspective, and it is, in typical Gaiman fashion, a nightmarish tale. It begins with a suicide in a car.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is set in a place both familiar, and deeply and thrillingly strange. A boy of the verge of adolescence finds himself battling forces beyond his imagination and control, assisted only by his best friend, Lettie. Life has been pretty unremarkable for the Boy and his family until the night when their lodger’s body is discovered in the family car. The world as the Boy knows it suddenly becomes unrecognizable, and inexplicable. Together, he and Lettie attempt to banish the supernatural forces unleashed by the suicide into their placid neighbourhood. It turns out that Lettie and her family are pretty strange also, hiding in plain sight in an old farmhouse that appears to have existed forever. Lettie is similarly timeless, showing the Boy a duck pond that can become an ocean, and how to fight a flea that has become a monster beyond imagining. Horwood’s adaptation is true to its sources, but it does suffer from a common problem when adapting novels to the stage. Sooner or later, the dramatic action gets swallowed up by the exposition, and the pace begins to drag. But there is so much going on visually in in this production that most audiences will not mind. The sympathetic characters, and the strength of the story, will keep people happily engaged.
Despite the lengthy playing time of play, time passes quickly enough in the company of Katy Rudd’s imaginative direction, and her talented band of actors and puppeteers. There is the set, designed by Fly Davis, which gives us a sense of a mysterious dark space framed by tree branches, and which also light up like Christmas trees when occasion demands. There’s a nice shift between the every day clothing of the Boy and his family, with the outlandish, out of time clothes of Lettie, her mother and grandmother (designed by Samuel Wyer, who also designed the puppets.) Paule Constable’s lighting is likewise essential for a well defined shift between worlds. But the real power of this production is wielded by the actors and puppeteers, who not only bring the main characters to life, but the constantly changing sets as well. With a nod to the techniques of bunraku, figures dressed in black are constantly bringing furniture on and off the stage. More frighteningly, they create the huge, otherworldly monsters that are conjured out the liminal spaces that exist just on the edge of the Sussex countryside. Finn Caldwell’s puppetry direction, together with Steven Hoggett’s movement direction, deserve special notice for all the complicated work that makes this such a visual feast.
The actors are more than up to the task of working with such a complex palette of sound, light and visuals. The Boy (played on this evening by Keir Ogilvy) and Lettie (Millie Hikasa) are a sympathetic duo caught up in an epic battle. Charlie Brooks, in the thankless task of playing the villain, deftly manages the shifts between the seemingly unthreatening Ursula, and her terrifying alter-ego. Dad, played by Trevor Fox, is particularly good as a man caught up in hiding his grief and trying to remain cheerful and positive for his children. The witchy trio of Lettie, her mother Winnie (Kemi-Bo Jacobs) and grandmother Old Mrs Hempstock (Finty Williams) bring magic and comic reassurance to the stage. The scenes in which they appear always seem brighter and more vivid, despite the lack of modern conveniences in their old farmhouse.
Fans of Neil Gaiman’s work will enjoy this show. It’s also well worth a visit for audiences who have never seen this kind of production before. The Ocean at the End of the Lane gives us performers who do the lion’s share of the work. In their hard working hands, they show us the collision of reality and magic. An ocean really does seem to come on stage for the children to play in. See it, and marvel at all the things a theatre of the imagination can do.