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Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern, Arcola, review: 'Crackles with fire and brimstone'

PUBLISHED: 09:05 16 January 2016 | UPDATED: 16:34 25 January 2016

Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern. Picture: Richard Davenport

Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern. Picture: Richard Davenport

©Richard Davenport 2015

The script of this atmospheric witch hunt is prone to sink when put to the test, says Greg Wetherall.

A stage lies bedecked with a crooked crucifix and a hangman’s noose. It foretells of the rabid witch hunt which will later unfold in Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s atmospheric and moody Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern.

This densely scripted work was written by an Oscar winner (Lenkiewicz co-wrote 2015’s best film in a foreign language victor Ida) and it bristles with a fast talking energy and crackles with fire and brimstone.

Set in 1712, proceedings commence with young Ann Thorn (Hannah Hutch) rapt in grief over her murdered mother. The blind, elderly and vexatious Priddy Goodstern (Judith Coke) warns Ann to stay clear of the absent Jane Wenham (Amanda Bellamy) for her own sake.

Meanwhile, an aged but progressive priest, Francis Hutcherson (David Acton), is visited by a conservative young reverend Samuel Crane (Tim Delap), who is determined to condemn Jane Wenham as a witch.

Hutcherson, who recalls the atrocities of the witch hunts from decades previously, warns against this desire. What unfolds is a reverend on a mission to make his mark in defiance of the elder priest and the abject cruelty scored when heed is paid to scurrilous rumour.

Lenkiewicz’s work does well to establish motive, with the grinding gears of pointed conjecture and supposition motoring the debate.

Commendably, director Ria Parry has constructed a play high on portentous atmosphere that compliments the narrative, alongside performances that are similarly sympathetic and full of weighty gusto.

That said, the play drags intermittently at the very moments where it should glide, though it is saved somewhat by the penultimate scene, which elicits an electrifying conclusion to Wenham’s torrid plight.

Rating: 4/5 stars

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