The Witchfinder’s Sister
Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch
Reviewed – 9th October 2021
“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.
Reviewed by Dominica Plummer
Photography by Mark Sepple
The Witchfinder’s Sister
Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch until 30th October
Dominica’s other reviews this year:
Peter Pan Goes Wrong
Theatre Royal Brighton
Reviewed – 19th November 2019
“Simon Scullion has designed a set that seems to be always on the verge of killing someone, yet manages not to”
Glorious slapstick, wonderful cheeky humour, and a completely mad ‘plot.’ Peter Pan Goes Wrong has everything you could possibly want from a hilarious evening at the theatre.
Once again I had my nine year old sidekick, Manu, with me to help with the review. He loved it, I loved it, clearly the whole audience loved it. Manu’s favourite bits were the most outrageous physical ‘mishaps’; the collapsing sets, the appearance on stage of the crew, trying to fix things with a chain saw and various other alarming tools. But the fun began even before the show did. Cast and crew moved through the audience, getting in the way, running wires, looking for lost equipment and chatting with people in their personas as amateur actors on their way to perform. Patrick Warner the narrator, who also plays the Cecco, the Italian pirate, made Manu a balloon dog and Ciaran Kellgren who plays Peter Pan came along, playing the star. ‘You know who I am,’ he informed Manu, and luckily he did, because he’d been reading the programme. ‘You’re my biggest fan’ crowed Kellgren and signed his programme. One very happy boy, even before the play officially began.
Another thing that Manu loved was the number of characters some of the cast played. Phoebe Ellabani executed some lightning changes right at the beginning, transforming from Mary Darling to Lisa the maid in seconds. Several times. Later she became both Tiger Lily and Tinkerbell. Peter Pan’s flying was incredibly skilful. He made it look shambolic, dangerous and very, very funny. I don’t want to give too much away, but when the ‘stage hands’ came on to wire up the Darling children for their flight to Neverland they didn’t exactly manage to do it right. You’ll have to go and see it if you want to know what happens! It’s hard to convey the sense of breathtaking chaos. Nothing goes right, and everything is perfectly judged.
Romayne Andrews, as John Darling wearing headphones that ‘fed him his lines,’ had some fabulous moments when he unknowingly tuned into the shipping forecast, or the ‘backstage chat,’ repeating everything verbatim. Tom Babbage’s Michael Darling/crocodile combo won the hearts of us all, when his secret passion was revealed, his charm and vulnerability turning him from a geeky kid to the audience favourite. Connor Crawford’s outrageous and exasperated Captain Hook was determined that the play was NOT a pantomime, but nothing was going to stop the audience taking up the traditional ‘oh yes it is! Oh no it isn’t!’ call.
Everyone in the cast deserves mention, as they were all superb. Katy Daghorn was a Wendy holding it together with Sarah Bernhardt aplomb, Oliver Senton bumbled and growled as Starkey, woofed his way across the stage as Nana the dog and was determined that he was the Co-Director, not merely the assistant. Georgia Bradley was a sweet Tootles, injured and stuttering but finally triumphant and Ethan Moorhouse’s Trevor the Stage Manager was the epitome of incompetent frustration, trying to fix everything as it collapsed around him. Although the collapse was probably his fault in the first place, his team of Assistant Stage Managers, Eboni Dixon, Christian James, Soroosh Lavasani and Ava Pickett ‘helped’ with startling uselessness.
Just when it seems impossible for things to fall apart even more spectacularly the finale happens. And it seems to happen to the cast, rather than be created by them. The revolving stage revolves, everything seems on the edge of total implosion and somehow the characters arrive at something approaching the expected end.
Simon Scullion has designed a set that seems to be always on the verge of killing someone, yet manages not to. The lighting and sound design add beautifully to the explosions and mishaps. And it’s all shaped into a tight, crazy farce by Adam Meggido, who expects a lot from his cast and absolutely gets it.
The whole thing is a superb romp that anyone from nine to ninety will love, acted and directed with whip smart skill. Manu and I both say ‘go and see it!’ You won’t regret it, although your ribs may be sore from laughing.
Reviewed by Katre
Photography by Alastair Muir
Peter Pan Goes Wrong
Theatre Royal Brighton until 24th November then UK tour continues
Previously reviewed at this venue: