The Salem witch trials are well known, perhaps in large part due to Arthur Miller’s outstanding play The Crucible that put the Massachusetts town on the map. Those in Manningtree less so, and Vickie Donoghue’s adaptation for the stage of Beth Underdown’s award-winning novel, The Witchfinder’s Sister, taking the same title, is unlikely to put the town on the map of Essex.
A bland story and somewhat emotionally numb script.
On entering the auditorium we are greeted by designer Libby Watson’s stunningly impressive set. Its vast scale is dominated by sturdy wooden beams and uprights, in places reminiscent of scaffolds, they form frames for exits and entrances in various locations and matching doors are flown and lowered to make the image complete, along with staircase to offstage levels. Trimming the forestage are rows of grasses that suggest an open marshland area and these are repeated on the other side of the house far upstage. Some vivid red metal chairs are located in various places, some as though blown aloft by a storm, the symbolism of which escaped both me and my friend, but they look spectacular; perhaps ducking stools. Costumes blend perfectly into this setting until closer analysis fails to identify them as either roundhead or cavalier or indeed place them uniformly in any particular period.
The lighting design by Matt Haskins fully complements the set and there are some spectacular sudden changes from the soft tones of everyday life to shafts of steel that illuminate the more surreal moments. Owen Crouch’s sound design is imaginative, if excessively loud at times, but gives much-needed support to moments of heightened tension and impending events.
The play is based on the activities of the infamous witchfinder Matthew Hopkins (George Kemp), who from 1644 until his death in 1647 was responsible for the deaths of more alleged witches than in the previous hundred years. He was also well-known for paying informers to commit perjury in order to secure a guilty verdict. The story, however, is told through the hard times of his sister, Alice Hopkins (Lily Knight), who comes home to live with her brother after the untimely death of her husband. There she finds her brother to be distant, controlling and secretive; all of which Kemp effectively displays.
With the focus on her rather than him the play is devoid of any dramatic courtroom scenes, trials and interrogations and instead becomes a rather bland tale of family history and secrets, people’s motives, and the unravelling of a few somewhat mysterious events. Knight holds the storyline together and is earnest. Jamie-Rose Monk, as the matriarchal housekeeper, maintains order and strictly follows her master’s wishes. She makes sure that Grace (Miracle Chance) is kept in her place and prevented at all times from idleness. Chance gives a suitably fearful and trembling portrayal of life on the bottom rung. Much of the family’s past, and everything that goes on in the village, is known to Bridget. Debra Baker captures her well-intentioned nature and sense of justice in a down-to-earth performance that is warmly worldy. What we know of the trials is told by Rebecca (Anne Odeke), who stays in the house for protection, as one who will give evidence against others and defend her mother. Odeke performs with passion and gives the production a much-needed lift in act two.
The production is directed and choreographed by Jonnie Riordan who has made a valiant effort to put life into a bland story and somewhat emotionally numb script that gives the impression of being all back story rather one that confronts the main issues. As a domestic tale it is nothing special and with major events reported rather than witnessed it generates a feeling of frustration.