The Crucible

Nov 26 2017 | By More

★★☆☆☆      Half-baked

Church Hill Theatre: Weds 22 – Sat 25 Nov 2017
Review by Thom Dibdin.

Leitheatre has made a bold and audacious stroke in its production of The Crucible, using a contemporary setting for Arthur Miller’s great allegory for the anti-communist hysteria in 1950s America.

The result, though, falls a long way short on any criteria. It is a production that it would be hard argue deserves a lone star, were it not for the doughty perseverance from some of the cast, who at least give a level of drama and meaning where it sometimes seems that the object of the production is to sap the script of both.

David Rennie, Billy Renfrew, Meya Phiri, Nicole Irvine, Pa Hymers, Moira Macdonald. Pic Marion Donohoe

The play follows events in Salem Massachusetts in 1692, when the Puritan community was split by accusations of witchcraft after a group of young girls were found dancing in the forest. The girls accused older women of bewitching them – in the ensuing witch trials those accused admitted to witchcraft and repented in preference to being hung.

Miller dramatised the facts somewhat, so it is fair game to play with his own time frame and use a place and time other than than Puritan America. But you do need a reason to do so and method of providing an aesthetic coherence to your update. Not to mention incorporating the original script seamlessly into that update.

Unfortunately director Mike Brownsell has done none of this, resulting in a complete miss-matched mash-up of times, social attitudes and technological advance.

information passes slowly

Smart-phones and microwaves just don’t sit with a community where information passes slowly, knowledge is housed in books to which only a few have access and the drudgery of housework necessitates a slave-owning society and young girls in servitude.

Ruth McLaren, Ruth Murphy and Kevin Rowe. Pic Marion Donohoe

Even without these distractions, Brownsell falls short.

Some of the performances work. David Rennie is suitably vicious and dim as Rev Parris who discovers the girls dancing –  including his own daughter and his Barbadian slave Tituba (Meya Rennie) – and whose personal antipathy towards his parishioners helps drive the animosity of the piece. Billy Renfrew creates a believable character in the Reverend Hale, brought to Salem by Parris, to find witches but who repents his own witch-finding methods. Renfrew makes you believe Hale’s own doubts.

But Moira Macdonald singularly fails to give any depth to Ann Putnam, whose loss of seven babies at childbirth leads to an adult endorsement of the witchcraft accusations. Nor does Pat Hymers help as her husband, landowner Thomas Putnam, whose wealth means that he will profit most from the accusations, buying up the farms of those accused.

Kevin Rowe starts well as John Proctor, a sturdy man who you can easily believe has fallen for his servant girl, while Nicole Irvine as Abigail is sharp as daggers throughout – you can practically see the calculations going on in her head.

what might be

So their first meeting is a brilliant frisson of what might be, with Proctor moving superbly from proud to cowed. But he quickly lapses into a two gear performance – put-upon and overblown. Ruth McLaren is equally shrill as his wife, Elizabeth, although she isn’t helped by a costume that looks like a Good Life cast-off.

Ruth McLaren, Billy Renfrew, Ruth Murphy Kevin Rowe, Charles Jones and John Fowler. Pic Marion Donohoe

There are rather more even performances from Brian Thomson as the Deputy Governor Danforth and Euan McIntyre as Judge Hathorne – they at least bring some sense of pace to the court scene where Proctor and his friend Giles Corey (John Fowler) attempt to change the court’s mind by bringing one of the girls, Proctor’s new servant Mary Warren, to admit that she lied.

Ruth Murphy is easily the best thing about the whole production as Mary Warren. She brilliantly captures the turmoil of one who has lied and is determined to admit the truth – but who is then condemned for that lie to the point where it is easier to revert to it and let the truth go hang.

Just as you thought that things were calming down and Brownsell had managed to tame his script, he comes up with a final act which is packed with performances of such overblown distress that it loses all of its inate subtlety and power.

It is all a huge pity, because we certainly need reminding of the destructive power of intolerance and hysteria. But a bold and audacious idea is no substitute for understanding.

However hard this uneven, overwrought and inconsistent production tries to bring a contemporary resonance to The Crucible it lacks the technical prowess to achieve one. The irony is that the original staging has contemporary resonances enough, no matter when it might be performed.

Running time: Two hours 35 minutes (including one interval)
Church Hill Theatre, 33a Morningside Road, EH10 4DR
Wednesday 22 – Saturday 25 November 2017
Evenings: 7.30pm.
Tickets and Details

Leitheatre website:
Facebook: @Leitheatre
Twitter: @LeitheatreEdin.

The court scene. Pic Marion Donohoe

Æ would like to apologise for the late running of this review. Thom had a nasty fall from his push bike earlier in the week and, while urging all cyclists to wear a life-saving helmet, he was not quite as up-to-speed as he thought he was.


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