Knives in Hens

Jun 12 2019 | By More

A Concert Reading from Pearlfisher

Royal Lyceum: Tue 11 June 2019
Reflections by Thom Dibdin

At the beginning of this one-off concert reading of Knives in Hens in memory of Pauline Knowles, playwright David Harrower related a telling anecdote about Pauline and the play in which she originated the central character.

Harrower never gave that character – Young Woman – a name. And all through the creation process of the first production in 1995, when cast and creatives were bringing the whole together, Pauline would ask him what she was called.

Lewis Howden and Shyvonne Ahmmad with Mr McFall’s Chamber before the start.

He tried to find the right name yet never could, but still promised to reveal it to her before the first performance. And so, in the Traverse bar when they were having a meal a couple of hours before curtain up, she asked the question – had he found a name for her yet?

Harrower had to admit he had not – but far from being put out Pauline replied “That’s good – I can keep the name I’ve given her.”  Somewhat relieved, Harrower asked what that name might be – but of course, that was something she wasn’t going to give up so easily.

It’s a story which says much about Pauline’s role in creating the play, in giving Harrower’s words a voice. While the rest of the team were intrinsic to its creation, she was, as Harrower said: “its beating heart, its shining soul”.

So the “Young Woman” does have a name, but it is a secret name which Pauline took with her to her all-too early grave when she suffered a heart attack last year. But as long as we do not know it, Young Woman can be anyone.

Original actors

If any production was going to demonstrate such an idea, it was this one in which original director Philip Howard returned to the script with original actors: Lewis Howden as the village ploughman and Young Woman’s elder husband, Pony William, and Michael Nardone as Gilbert Horn the miller.

Pauline Knowles in the original production of Knives in Hens. Pic: The Traverse Theatre

And to play Young Woman, there were 25 different actors (The Twenty Five). Some known, some not, actors from film and TV as well as the stage, some famous for pantomime or long-running detective series, actors who appeared with Pauline – some on the Lyceum stage – and young actors still in drama school.

It seemed that such a surfeit of brilliance could swamp the script, drown out what it was trying to say. But under Howard’s light direction that was never any danger as each brought her own voice to the role, showing that Young Woman is everyone, no matter their age, but all had that same rhythm running through their delivery.

It was like a flicker-book view of the character, each different performer a new page to add a different facet as she develops her comprehension of language and its meaning, moving from superstition into understanding of the written word.

austere setting

Surrounded by them, Howden and Nardone provided twin poles of masculinity. Not judged, but simply there in all their faults, not really changing in their underlying beliefs.

Behind them all, Mr McFall’s Chamber playing musical arrangements of the motifs and sketches written by the original musician, the late Martyn Bennett, to add colour and texture to the austere setting on the towering, asylum-like set, still there after the production of The Duchess [Of Malfi].

And then, tying it all in together, Martyn’s mother, Margaret, who had her line at the end, as the actors coalesced into a choir and then a chorus of voices and her solo voice rose from it, in a powerful Gaelic song that transcended the description of a lament yet shone with a somehow plaintive effect.

Such an evening as this is not one for review. But it still must be marked as a powerful evocation of the life force of theatre itself – and a fitting memory and salute to the force of life who was Pauline Knowles.

Knives in Hens
Royal Lyceum Theatre, Grindlay Street, EH3 9AX
Tuesday 11 June 2019
One performance: 7.30pm.

The evening was held as a fundraiser for a new Pauline Knowles Scholarship Fund at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Further details and how to donate:




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