The Wonderful Discovery of Witches in the County of Lancaster

The events reflected in Dawn State Theatre Company’s The Wonderful Discovery of Witches in the County of Lancaster happened in 1612, roughly 80 years before the Salem witch trials in Massachusetts. The latter inspired Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, a brilliant indictment of the 1950s 'Red Scare' hysteria in America. What the new play is up to isn’t quite so clear.

The Wonderful Discovery of Witches in the County of Lancaster takes itself far too seriously.

Overwritten by Gareth Jandrell, overacted (smugly) by a cast of three, even over-lit, The Wonderful Discovery of Witches reaches back to the true story of an English witch hunt whose trials and hangings were chronicled by a court clerk named Thomas Potts. Jandrell uses the old texts for his play-within-a-play, a device that gives his actors even more leeway to chew up and spit out the little bits of scenery afforded them in the Pleasance Attic.

The setup is that three years on from the 'Pendle Forest' trials in Lancaster, three key figures in the pursuit and punishment of 'witches' - Potts (Christopher Birks), former Justice of the Peace Nowell (Dan Nicholson) and Jennet Device (Amy Blair), the granddaughter of a notorious local sorceress – are touring the countryside with a show. Exploiting public curiosity for all things witchy, the trio re-enact the courtroom testimony of Jennet’s grandmother, known as Old Demdike, and various other witnesses to the spells and curses that felled cattle and curdled milk by ‘the gross offence of witchcraft’.

Trouble is, young Jennet has grown tired of the pageant. She just goes through the motions of the performances as Nowell and Potts bicker behind her about who’s getting too much stage time. Blair’s blank expressions as Jennet are amusing but the joke wears thin.

The play gets stuck in its verbosity and seems to run in circles without actually ending up anywhere meaningful. They spew torrents of archaic language and when they’re not blabbing about witches, they’re singing dirge-like hymns (written by Nicholson) in the loud close-harmony of college a cappella. Oh, spare us that level of ‘look at us because we’re cute and special’ precocity.

Nicholson and Birks, both wearing scruffy facial hair, give desperately breathless performances, spinning around Blair on the tiny stage. She has one good moment, exploding in fury at the men when she finally gets fed up of being dragged from village to village and made to perform like a captive monkey.

The Wonderful Discovery of Witches in the County of Lancaster takes itself far too seriously. It’s loud, it’s long (just an hour, but a long one) and it doesn’t bewitch. It just bothers and bewilders.

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Performances

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The Blurb

Britain, 1615. Two men are on a mission to arm their countrymen against a plague of devilish outsiders. Until now their star attraction has been Jennet Device, youngest of the Pendle Witches, the girl whose testimony condemned her entire family to the noose. But now Jennet has grown up, her eyes are starting to open, and tonight heads will roll. An incendiary new play about power, fear and fanaticism, from the company behind the Fringe 2014 smash The Man Who Would Be King: 'Superb' **** (Scotsman). 'Flawless' **** (Stage).

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