Venue: Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch. Billet Lane, Hornchurch, Essex RM11 1QT
Credits: by Beth Underdown. Adapted for the stage by Vickie Donoghue. Produced by Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch
The Witchfinder’s Sister
Matthew Hopkins was a self-appointed “witchfinder”, responsible for the deaths of at least a hundred women in mid-17th Century East Anglia at the time of the English Civil War. Of course it was all presented as righteous Puritanism. In fact he was probably in it for financial gain. His ideas and methods later resurfaced in Massachusetts.
Well, Vickie Donoghue’s play (based on a novel by Beth Underdown) is definitely not The Crucible but it is both thoughtful and thought-provoking. Historically, little is known about Hopkins’s family. The play posits a sister Alice (Lily Knight) who tries and fails to make him see sense and to show compassion. It’s essentially a feminist piece with a cast of five women (one of whom, Jamie-Rose Monk’s Mary, is on his side) and Matthew (George Kemp).
Libby Watson’s set is clever. Lots of shimmery dark panels act as mirrors and add to the murky atmosphere. The wide stage at Queen’s Theatre becomes three different spaces with the aid of Matt Haskins’s lighting design so that scenes flow seamlessly. Doors are flown on and off from above which I thought was ingenious until they began to remind me of lifts going up and down.
I also had a problem with Owen Crouch’s sound design. Almost the entire play is accompanied by loud music and noise which is clearly meant to sound variously creepy, dangerous, frightening and indicative of mental turmoil. For me it quite quickly became an irritant and I pitied the actors who had to speak over it. Although they were all very clear and audible I should think they were pretty tired by the end.
The first act is a bit slow, some of the dialogue wooden and the acting static but it picks up dramatically in the second half when we meet Anne Odeke’s moving Rebecca who agrees to speak for Matthew at a trial in order to save her mother but of course he’s utterly ruthless. The scene in which she is “floated” is beautifully staged.
Kemp is chilling as Matthew and Knight sustains her demanding role as Alice with passion although I’m at a loss to know why she is required to recite The Lord’s Prayer, complete with anachronistic error, quite so many times. Miracle Chance is good as rough and ready but sensitive Grace, the young servant girl detailed to conduct bodily examinations of women for Matthew.
It’s a dark play in every sense. The persecution of these innocent women was/is appalling and it should never be forgotten in these days of “cancel culture” just how easily this mindset takes hold. The names of the women who were killed are, at one point, intoned as part of the soundtrack and they are often mentioned by name in the text. Yes, we should remember them and this play really helps to do that.
This review was first published by Sardines: https://www.sardinesmagazine.co.uk/review/the-witchfinders-sister/