The Silent Woman
White Bear Theatre
Reviewed – 22nd April 2022
“The supernatural and the natural are weaved together in cleverly, unexpected ways”
Rose is delighted to have landed the job as housemaid in an imposing country manor on the Cornish Coast. She keeps to a tightly regimented schedule, neatly laid out in her own hand, and kept for safekeeping within the pages of a leather-bound copy of Charlotte Brontë’s ‘Jane Eyre’. We somehow feel that her story won’t end well. Fast forward 150 years and Vicki, a Canadian novelist, believes the same manor house will inspire her and break down her writer’s block. She arrives with her best friend, Cassie, who in turn brings along a twitchy sixth sense that bridges the gap between the centuries. Vicki finds the place atmospheric; Cassie finds it haunted.
We are not quite in ghost story territory here. The piece, co-written by Alexandria Haber and Ned Cox, initially spoofs the standard horror genre, complete with West Country accents and the local publican declaring that ‘nobody’s set foot in that there manor in a fisherman’s moon’. But we rapidly realise that this unique drama defies categorisation. Are we watching a play? A novel within a play or a play within a novel? Or is it a play about writing a novel? Or a novel disguised as a play? Or all of these things? Chapters are introduced in lieu of scene changes. Narration weaves into dialogue seamlessly and the performers shift from first to third person and back with immaculate timing. It is a difficult and ambitious combination of theatrical devices, but the company carry it off superbly.
Director Alain Goulem, balances well the comedy with the Gothic atmosphere. The ghostly suspense is punctured by the subtle laughs but never deflates. Lead narrator is Jane Wheeler as Vicki, on her literary pilgrimage. She has a publisher’s deadline for the novel she has yet to write. With her rich voice, Wheeler is an innate storyteller. But as the tale unfolds, we wonder whose story is actually being told. Cara Steele’s nineteenth century maid, Rose, is ever present. Forced into silence a century and a half ago, she weaves her way into the untangling story, desperate for her own voice to be heard at last. Is she now writing Vicki’s novel from beyond the grave? Or is it Moira, the vibrantly eccentric landlady of the local pub, whose fertile imagination feeds Vicki’s word-starved mind? Fiona Tong’s comic timing and eye for character bring moments of delight. Alexandria Haber, as Cassie, is the conduit between ghosts and mortals, unwittingly aiding the silent women of both the past and the present find their voice.
The supernatural and the natural are weaved together in cleverly, unexpected ways; with twists tight enough to topple the fourth wall throughout the show. The characters are larger than life, yet made very human (or ghostly) thanks to the fine performances of the four strong cast. Neither the script nor the acting requires any embellishment by way of a set or props. The company’s minimal use of lighting and subtle sound adds the right touches of light and shade.
“The Silent Woman” does seem to have an underlying commentary on the way women’s voices have been silenced by society. Which, arguably, still continues to this day. The beauty of the play, however, is that the message is chameleon, soaked into the narrative that you only notice it subliminally. What we essentially come away with is a rich concoction of ghosts, memories, shared tragedies, secrets, and a multi-layered story within a story (within another story…?). And a re-affirmation of the importance of small-scale theatre like this show at the White Bear.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
The Silent Woman
White Bear Theatre until 23rd April
Previously reviewed at this venue: