“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.
“Beatriz and Buckley are an unlikely duo on paper perhaps, but combined they are the absolute shining stars of this production”
You can’t beat a good ghost story in a theatre. The darkened auditorium, the focused hush, the sheer unlikeliness of something in a proscenium arch genuinely scaring you.
I remember the first time I saw The Woman in Black, the ultimate theatrical ghost story. I was 14, and having seen a fair bit of theatre already, I fancied myself a little sophisticate. But the first time the woman in black appeared on stage I literally screamed and dove under my brother’s seat. Deeply embarrassed I quickly composed myself, only to do it again 15 minutes later. But The Woman in Black ticks the box on nearly every classic ghost story trope- the old, mysterious setting, the misty moors, a stranger coming to a strange place, a world still living largely in candlelight. 2:22, however, sets the scene in the bright light of modernity with no tropes to hide behind.
Taking place in a doer-upper that’s been gutted and tastefully redecorated (designed by Anna Fleischle), there are no shadows, no scary nooks, no creaking floorboards. On first glance, this is the last place you’d expect to see a ghost, everything new and gleaming, the paint still wet. Even the shrieks from outside are cleanly explained away by smug scientist Sam (Elliot Cowan) as foxes getting it on.
But despite the lovely open-plan space, motion-censored lights outside, and Alexa conducting the house’s technology on demand, Sam’s wife Jenny (Giovanna Fletcher) feels far less certain that there aren’t supernatural forces afoot. For the past few nights, at 2:22am precisely, she hears footsteps in her daughter’s bedroom, and a man sobbing. When she switches on the light- poof- it’s gone. With guests over for dinner, they decide to make a night of it, waiting until 2:22 to hear for themselves.
Writer Danny Robbins toes the line with balletic aplomb between silly fun with friends and a genuine coaxing fear amongst the cast, and the audience in turn. Guest Lauren (Stephanie Beatriz), sort of believes but is just up for a fun boozy night, where her new partner Ben (James Buckley) is an excitable believer. It’s a nice balance against husband Sam who is maddeningly cynical, and wife Jenny who is exasperatingly histrionic.
The play is perforated with a harrowing scream throughout, which, after maybe the first one, doesn’t really make sense. Its purpose seems only to make the audience jump and to irritate me, which is a shame because the plot is plenty unnerving without it, and if anything, it’s quite distracting, causing a kind of pantomime effect with the audience who, having jumped out of their skins, end up laughing and talking amongst themselves after each one.
Beatriz and Buckley are an unlikely duo on paper perhaps, but combined they are the absolute shining stars of this production. Both known for their previous comic roles, each employs deft comic timing as a mood-lifter as well as a creation of awkward, sometimes painful intensity. It’s artistry to be able to make an audience laugh whilst simultaneously furthering the tension. They also both show themselves to be serious actors, with plenty of emotional scope.
Cowan is playful and gratingly smug, whilst retaining his humanity. He does well to appear not to realise his negative effect on those around him, keeping him on just about the right side of likeable.
Fletcher, however, pitches herself at around 9 from the very beginning and therefore has very little room for growth in hysteria and upset. It would be far more affecting if she had played at least the first half as ‘mildly irritated’ rather than ‘capsizingly distressed’. But if you don’t want it to ruin the rest of the story, you have to actively decide that maybe her character is just quite annoying but still deserving of sympathy.
This is not ground-breaking work, and the final explanation of the ghostly occurrences (don’t worry, I’m not going to ruin it) is only just about satisfying. But it’s ideal wintery entertainment; a titillating plot with genuinely intriguing characters and relationships, and surprisingly funny.