Edinburgh Fringe 2015
“It’s 1615, and two men are on a mission to arm their hard-working countrymen against a plague of devilish outsiders. Until now their chief weapon has been Jenna Device, youngest of the Pendle Witches, the girl whose testimony condemned her entire family to the noose. But now Jennet has grown up, her eyes are starting to open and tonight heads will roll.”
Surely, Dawn State Theatre Company must know full well that they’re producing great theatre. The company strives to make “thrilling, contemporary theatre inspired by classic texts and forgotten stories.” With The Wonderful Discovery of Witches in the County of Lancaster they have certainly achieved this aim.
The play is inspired by the true story of the Pendle witch-hunt. Told in the form of a play within a play, the narrative focuses on the relationships between Jennet Device (Amy Blair), former justice of the peace, Nowell (Dan Nicholson) and clerk, Potts (Christopher Birks). The trio have been travelling around the country performing a play for the general public, celebrating their discovery of the Pendle witches and Device’s salvation from the Devil’s grasp. However, right from the first beat it’s clear that things are not going quite well for Nowell and Potts. Device is no longer a little girl and she’s beginning to understand not only her role in her family’s demise but also her current place in the trio’s pecking order.
This fabulous young cast fizzle with energy and their range is impressive. Their performances are magnetic and assured. When the trio of characters play multiple roles Blair, Nicholson and Birks carry them off with great comic effect. Their performances of their younger selves, and the ‘witches’ of Pendle, are both comic and disturbing in equal measure. Birks is particularly delightful playing both the accusing farmer and, later, Device’s mother. His characterisation of Potts is full of hidden depths and is beautifully balanced. Nicholson’s portrayal of blind fanaticism and eventual loss of power is incredibly engaging. Blair’s journey from child to devastated woman is fantastic.
The characters break up their tale and transition between scenes with moments of hymns which are sung beautifully by the trio. The growing disillusionment of Device is brilliantly played as she grows less and less inclined to sing.
Without wishing to hand out spoilers there is a moment in the piece which hints at just how much the trio’s act is falling apart. This outburst from Potts is so swift that, on this occasion, it caused gasps from the audience. Fabulous!
The final conflict takes an unexpected turn. The truth floods out in a burst of revelations that have little to do with witches. What may have been true during the Pendle witch-trials takes a backseat to themes of opportunism, exploitation and betrayal.
Gareth Jandrell’s script is exquisite and a masterclass in character development, conflict building and subtext. The dialogue is complex and balances moments of tension with comic lines that seem to blossom out of nowhere. Dan Coleman’s direction shows a real confidence in his actors’ abilities. He builds on the comedy in the writing through great physicality and the tension is built with great attention to bluster and nervous tension. He keeps his actors on stage throughout, never shifting away from the central conceit of the characters putting on their show. Their continual silent exchanges and bickering means there’s always something to watch and nothing is ever what it seems.
Dawn State’s debut production The Man Who Would Be King garnered four star reviews and transferred to the VAULT festival and Oxford Playhouse. There’s no doubt The Wonderful Discovery of Witches in the County of Lancaster will mirror, if not exceed this and it’s highly recommended that you endure the hothouse that is the Pleasance Attic to see this play.