Banned at Ipswich School for Girls last year for ‘inappropriate language’, Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s new play, Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern is certainly not the profanity-ridden, immoral cesspool the school made it out to be. Quite the opposite, really. With a cast of characters who are predominately female, this new play reads more like a GCSE English set text that’s a British version of The Crucible. This is a properly well-made play that fully embraces naturalism and touches on a host of issues: religious zealotry, lesbianism, rejection of The Other, Sisterhood, patriarchal domination of society, race, age and probably a handful of others. Consequently, there are numerous parallels we can make between this play set in the 1700s and modern day, though no singular one dominates. The production was competently performed, well-designed and overall, well done. That’s the problem, though. Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern doesn’t have anything wrong with it, but apart from a pair of breasts exposed during a torture scene, the play is, well, fine. It lacks the power and contemporary focus on a singular topic that The Crucible has, though it tells a good story and has some excellent moments.
Lighting designer Richard Howell’s work is the most innovative of the production elements. An ever-present but passive gallows takes on a startlingly different shape at the end of the first act, and nighttime woodland meetings are ringed in a glowing, inclusive circle. The set is minimalist but smart, drawing attention to James Button’s detailed costumes. A puppet is similarly detailed and lifelike, but Matt Hutchinson’s cockerel is underused.
The performances are generally good, though the ensemble cast is evenly distributed so even the title role has an equal share of the stage time. This works well to create the feel of a small village with nosy neighbours relentlessly up in others’ business. Rachel Sanders shows great range by doubling as prolific breeder Bridget Hurst and pub landlady Widow Higgins; she has some wonderful intimacy with Andrew Macklin, a married Irish man with an infertile wife and desperate for children. Her hysteria is an excellent foil to Samuel Crane (Tim Dunlap), the new reverend dedicated to ridding the town of witches. Crane and the older Bishop Francis Hutchinson (a fantastic David Acton), who has learnt his lessons from historical witch hunts and sees the good in everyone, also have some sparky exchanges. The slightly old fashioned language interferes with character commitment at times, and some of the performances tend towards generalised due to a lack of development of the individual characters in favour of ensemble.
Still, it’s not a bad play at all. It has a good story, some interesting history and stylistically harks back to American post-Stanislavskian plays from the 1920s – 1950s: Odets, Miller, Rice, and that lot. A clear metaphor would certainly enhance this show’s potency but it has some great elements that make it an enjoyable night at the theatre. Just not one that packs much of a punch.