“the best work on stage is by the very capable supporting cast“
The Witchfinder’s Sister, adapted for the stage by Vickie Donoghue from the popular 2017 novel by Beth Underdown, seems like a good choice for Halloween season at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch. Set in 1645, in nearby Manningtree, Donoghue’s adaptation transports the audience into a deeply troubled time in England, where safe lives and livelihoods are hard to find, and a family’s fortunes can change in a moment. The Civil War is already underway, but more importantly, at least for the unfortunate citizens of Manningtree, so are witch hunts.
Into this world of whispers and neighbours informing on neighbours, comes Alice, newly widowed and pregnant, hoping to find a safe place in her brother Matthew’s house. But the recent death of their mother, and the revelation of family secrets, has left Alice’s brother a changed man. Matthew is a man disfigured by a childhood accident; he is fueled by misogyny, and a desire to find witches that he can name and write in his witch finder’s book. As you might expect, it all goes downhill from there. Donoghue has done her best in adapting this material, though her play is exposition heavy, and moves slowly under the weight of such serious matters. But the problem for any playwright writing about witch hunts is how to acknowledge the giant in the room (in this case, Arthur Miller’s classic The Crucible) without being drawn into direct comparisons. Donoghue manages this with a sly reference to Salem at one point in The Witchfinder’s Sister, but in truth, there is a similarity in the inspiration for these works. Just as Miller was inspired to write his play as a reaction to the “witch hunts” against Communist sympathizers in 1950s America, contemporary Britons may find parallels with “fake news” paranoia, in the whispering neighbours of 1645 Manningtree. Witch hunts aren’t just for Halloween, anymore.
There is a lot to admire about this production at the Queen’s Theatre. It’s a great space for one thing, and the set, lighting and sound designers have the resources they need to show off their work. Libby Watson’s set, Matt Haskins’ lighting design, and Owen Crouch’s sound design set a powerful mood for The Witchfinder’s Sister, and it’s there in the auditorium the moment the audience enters. Once the play begins, however, much of the movement on stage is lost in semi-darkness. While this does sustain the mood, it also places a burden on the audience.
Alice, played by Lily Knight, carries most of this heavy play on her shoulders, but the best work on stage is by the very capable supporting cast, in particular, Anne Odeke, playing Rebecca; Grace, played by Miracle Chance; Bridget, played by Debra Baker, and Jamie-Rose Monk, as Mary. George Kemp, who has recently been making a career of playing brothers on stage, is rather underutilized in the role of Matthew, but The Witchfinder’s Sister is really a play about the women in this story. The men may hold the power in the 1645 world of Manningtree, but in this play, they hold it off stage.
Locals will find visiting the Queen’s Theatre to watch The Witchfinder’s Sister a rewarding experience of neighbourhood history. For those planning a visit from further afield, and without a car, be aware that the District Line may leave you stranded at any point between Barking and Upminster. Forewarned is forearmed, as they say, and that applies just as much to the citizens of Essex in 1645, as it does to contemporary theatre goers in 2021.
“what truly drives this production are the performances”
Initially a stage play, “Little Voice” was turned into the hugely successful fin-de-siècle movie starring Jane Horrocks, but has since been staged and well received enough for it to have become, if not quite a classic, a safe bet on the theatre scene. A victim of its success, there is the danger that audiences will cease to be amazed by the story of the shy, reclusive girl who reveals a powerfully beautiful voice. Tom Latter’s revival at the Park Theatre steers clear of that danger with a production that, even for those who know the story backwards, is as fresh as if it were written yesterday.
Desperately missing her dead father, Little Voice spends her time locked in her bedroom listening to his old record collection and perfecting her striking impersonations of famous singing divas. Her mother, the brash Mari, through sheer neglect does her best to stamp out this talent, until she starts dating small-time, dodgy impresario Ray, who attempts to coax Little Voice out of her hiding place. He sees a ticket to the big time. Mari sees an escape route to a better life. Little Voice just wants a normal life. Surely not everybody can get what they want.
Latter’s direction is punchy, assured and, played out on Jacob Hughes’ simple yet clever split-level design, remains faithful to writer Jim Cartwright’s script. But what truly drives this production are the performances.
Rafaella Hutchinson as Little Voice is a master impersonator, capturing the tones and vocal inflections of Monroe, Bassey, Holiday, Garland, Lee – and even Cher. Hutchinson’s transformation from damaged waif to impassioned cabaret star (and back again) is entirely believable, while she manages to trigger those contrasting emotions within you: you are willing her to break out of her shell and achieve the recognition she so deserves, yet at the same time condemning the exploitation.
But the star of the show is undoubtedly Sally George as the relentlessly chattering Mari. A sharp contrast to the silent and fearful Little Voice, yet thanks to George’s captivating performance you can see through Mari’s brash exterior to know that she shares the same insecurities as her daughter. (Interestingly they are also real-life mother and daughter). Her portrayal of Mari is quite magnificent. No pause is left unfilled by Cartwright’s bitingly hilarious text as George delivers her lines with precision timing. Seemingly unaware of the damage she is inflicting, it is all the more heart-wrenching when her daughter finally cracks the hard shell of her self-centredness.
Strong support comes from Linford Johnson as the tongue-tied electrician who woos Little Voice from the rooftops with a nervous uncertainty that belies his faith in her. Kevin McMonagle’s dubious Ray Say pans from leery charm to heartless menace in a riveting performance that lifts his character well out of the pitfall of caricature that is all too easy to fall into with this role. Jamie-Rose Monk as monosyllabic Sadie often threatens to silently steal the show, while Shaun Prendergast takes that threat further with his stand out portrayal of the stand-up Mr Boo: nightclub owner. His club-compere routines are hilarious. While the laughs from the audience are genuine, Prendergast’s own appreciation of his pitch-perfect wise-cracks are a thin veneer that fails to conceal the charred and dying hopes and dreams beneath.
The performances highlight the humour in Jim Cartwright’s dialogue, but here they also accentuate the play’s central themes of neglect, exploitation, grief, loneliness and abuse. When Little Voice herself finally dispenses with her alter-egos and poignantly sings in her own voice we are reminded that this production has its own voice too, which sets it apart from many other versions of this Northern fairy-tale.