The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

Nov 9 2021 | By More

★☆☆☆☆   Unfathomable

King’s Theatre: Mon 8 – Sat 13 Nov 2021
Review by Hugh Simpson

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow from Tilted Wig productions, touring to the King’s until Saturday, may just about pass muster for a post-Hallowe’en frightfest due to its occasional horrific moments.

However, what is truly terrifying is that such an obviously large budget should produce such a chaotic, muddled end product.

Sam Jackson. Pic: Craig Sugden.

There are certainly promising elements on display; there is a great deal to applaud in the concept behind Philip Meeks’s script. So often, touring shows based on books stick slavishly to the original.

Here, Washington Irving’s original short story set in the post-Revolutionary United States, about schoolteacher Ichabod Crane (Sam Jackson) and his encounter with a headless horseman, is used merely as a jumping-off point. The story is not always told in a linear way, which once again is an interesting and praiseworthy approach in such a production.

Unfortunately, the added material simply serves to confuse, with every character seeming to have important secrets. Blind alleys and red herrings might improve a whodunnit – but only make a horror story more difficult to follow. The backstory for Brom Van Brunt – Crane’s rival for the hand of Katrina Van Tassel – is belatedly given a modern twist which is potentially interesting. But is then completely ignored.


The headless horseman himself, meanwhile, is nothing more than a sideshow as the story diverts to a folk-horror version of the First Nations mythology of the Wendigo, which just adds to the puzzle.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow company. Pic: Craig Sugden

It is extremely dangerous to have one character describe the setting as ‘fathomless’, or have another cry ‘this makes no sense!’ when many in the audience will be thinking exactly that. Even the traditional, patronising advice of ‘switch off your brain and enjoy it’ is out of the question when what is on stage is so baffling.

Any problems with the play are magnified by the staging, which cannot be faulted for ambition, but is a stranger to any kind of subtlety and undermines the story on almost every level.

Director Jake Smith seems ill at ease with the genre, and there is a decided lack of suspense. The first half is hamstrung by a huge number of extremely short scenes interspersed with ill-advised stompy dancing, accompanied by overloud music.

nifty illusions

Sam Glossop’s sound design is intriguing but suffers from such an unsubtle use of volume that (like the surfeit of dry ice) is used as a substitute for real atmosphere.

There are a couple of effective jump-scares, and some nifty illusions courtesy of Filipe J Carvalho. However, a lack of consistency in the storyline, allied to unsettling variations in tone, mean that the production struggles to forge its own identity and is never more than incidentally frightening.

Wendi Peters. Pic: Craig Sugden

The two big names attached to the play are Coronation Street veterans Wendi Peters and Bill Ward, and while they are both reliable presences (and do appear to be enjoying themselves mightily) their characters are rarely more than incidental to the plot. Peters’s Widow Papenfuss is the most interesting thing on display, but – like the other successful parts of the narrative – seems to belong to one of several different plays uncomfortably yoked together.

constant detours

The younger members of the cast are not aided by the constant detours of a production that is never quite sure how seriously to take itself. At times the performances verge on melodrama, and at others they are so conversational as to be barely audible – something not helped by performers turning their backs on the audience. Accents also wobble noticeably.

The odd texture of the performance is shown when a storytelling sequence, featuring obviously heightened acting and silly voices, is not as distinct from what surrounds it as it probably should be.

Bill Ward. Pic: Craig Sugden.

Sam Jackson is always going to struggle as an Ichabod whose added backstory just makes him confusing rather than complex, but Lewis Cope invests Brom Van Brunt’s struggles with a certain dignity. Similarly, Rose Quentin gives Katrina as much believability as is reasonably possible. Tommy Sim’aan, meanwhile, is given a series of unfunny comedy turns that would defeat the most seasoned performer.

Amy Watts has provided an imposing and versatile set that could be used better, but harsh lighting means that the omnipresent, choking dry ice is the only way that there will ever be any unseen corners for spooky goings-on (except when the lights are suddenly switched off, obviously accompanied by more loud noises).

The huge set, like everything else, is obviously the product of considerable investment, and it is heartening to see such an ambitious undertaking in the present climate. It is extremely unfortunate that so few involved have had the conviction necessary to produce something more coherent than this.

Running time: Two hours and 25 minutes (including one interval).
King’s Theatre, 2 Leven Street, EH3 9LQ
Monday 8 – Saturday 13 November 2021
Daily at 7.30 pm; Matinees Wed and Sat at 2.30 pm
Information and tickets: Book here

Tommy Sim’aan. Pic: Craig Sugden


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  1. Jo Sunderland says:

    Come and speak to my GCSE students Hugh. They all understood it.