The Wonderful Discovery of Witches in the County of Lancaster

For some strange and unknown reason, the idea of witches and witchcraft tends not to carry the darkness or horror that other (possibly) mythical demons do – even though there were times in history when the thoughts of, and belief in, their existence caused genuine widespread fear and panic. Today, the majority of "witchery tales" either focus on the public, religious-based reactions in the times of Salem and before, or play for comedy (surely no one is really fearful of Bette Midler's character in Hocus Pocus!) Dawn State Theatre Company's pared down three-hander seems to be straddling somewhere between these two focuses – but in doing so, they have created a mixed bag that confuses its purpose, struggling to raise either much comment or much laughter.

Maybe it is trying to cram in too much in order to have wider appeal, but in only an hour, the result of having so many different styles is that it is difficult to have a grip on any point or go on any sort of journey.

Set in the early 17th Century, this is based on the true accounts by Thomas Potts of the witch trials in Pendle that he carried out as a clerk (as he's repeatedly reminded of his lowly status throughout) alongside magistrate Roger Nowell. The construct here is that they are now living off their story years later by playing out to paying “lords and gentlemen” in theatres, accompanied by Nowell's ward, Jennet – the young girl whose testimony was key to 'proving' that her mother and grandmother really were practising witches. The three of them walk us through headlined chapters of their investigations with the villagers, the accused "Old Demdike" (the grandmother) and up to the conclusion of the trial of her daughter – each playing multiple characters by adding a floppy hat, or a shawl and a few topline character affectations and questionable accents.

It's another piece of storytelling with a “play within a play” – a format I'm getting a bit tired of seeing as it seems to be the easy and overused fallback for a touring show right now. The confusion for us comes from not quite getting what their aim is – the styles used keep jarring throughout. As their 'main' characters, the three are generally sparring in a very jolly way that isn't far removed from Ant and Dec's joshing. Amy Blair as Jennet (the character who clearly and, for fair reason, doesn't want to be involved in the act) is amusing as she rolls her eyes and delivers lines in a sarcastic-tone-by-numbers (in the way an annoying five year old repeats everything you say) but the obvious joke quickly gets tired. Dan Nicholson and Christopher Birks (Nowell and Potts respectively) cause a few giggles as they compete for status ("I'm playing Demdike", "But I always do" as they fight for the costume, and "I'm a magistrate" is met with "You look more like a clerk") but it comes across more as kids in a playground competing over whose Dad is the biggest than any real dark competition in that time. And in the chapters, they mainly play the scenes as dramatically 'real' but then suddenly break out of them – and the characters they are playing in them – for quick gags.

Then there are the strange choral harmonies in inaudible songs that act as interludes between each chapter, feeling like they are trying too earnestly to make some point or create atmosphere of the time – but this style could be from another show to the acting. To add to the historic feel, it's all written with heavy repetition of key words that may well have been of the time but come across as clunky as though they have been added after consulting with a 17th Century thesaurus. As the 'playful banter' is performed in a way that you would expect to see today, you are watching movement of modern actors who are saying (and singing) amateur style Shakespearean words (in terms of archaic language as opposed to the quality).

And then just when I had thought I had it penned as a light-hearted giggle with some attempted signifiers to the time the story is taking place, a darkly violent sub-plot pops up. This could have made us jump out of the false sense of security that they had created for us and brought it altogether. Well, I guess it could have... But rather than suddenly make sense of it all, here it just feels so awkwardly out of place that it could be from yet another show and then been cobbled in to this one.

Maybe it is trying to cram in too much in order to have wider appeal, but in only an hour, the result of having so many different styles is that it is difficult to have a grip on any point or go on any sort of journey. Instead it keeps throwing you off so that you feel restless – even bored – because each style is too half-hearted to draw you in. I dare say that if they had put all their energies into making it funny – properly funny as opposed to light entertainment amusing – then the three of them could make it work as they clearly play off each other nicely. Indeed the predominately teenage audience watching on this performance laughed and whooped at the gags and gave rapturous applause (that the cast even eked out to take a second curtain call). But if they were trying to create a bewitching powerful spell for more seasoned theatregoers, then there are far too many weak ingredients for this to have any magic.

And on a final note, I really hope that we see more theatre companies come to Greenwich who have confidence in playing a story rather than telling us one. I appreciate it is a tried and tested structure to talk directly to audience and then 'flashback' – logistically making it easy to multicast and adapt simple, tourable props and settings – but as an audience, we also want to experience a journey rather than constantly have the fourth wall broken before us. Over half of the last 10 plays I have seen at Greenwich Theatre have used this format, so what may seem unique to each individual is now fast becoming cliché. We need more brevity at what is a great fringe venue.

Reviews by Simon Smith

Dorfman Theatre

Home, I'm Darling

★★
Olivier Theatre

Exit the King

Royal Court Theatre

Pity

★★
National Theatre

The Lehman Trilogy

★★★★★
Lyttelton Theatre

Julie

★★★★
Olivier Theatre

Translations

★★

Performances

Location

The Blurb

A spellbinding new play inspired by the true story of Britain’s bloodiest witch-hunt.

It’s 1615, and Magistrates Potts and Nowell are on a mission to arm their countrymen against a plague of devilish outsiders. Until now their chief weapon 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.

Dawn State combine searing dialogue, haunting music and bold th