Browse reviews

FringeReview UK 2020

The Welkin

National Theatre, London

Genre: Drama, Historical, Live Music, Mainstream Theatre, New Writing, Theatre

Venue: National Theatre, Lyttelton


Low Down

Directed by James Macdonald with Set and Costume Design by Bunny Christie, lit by Lee Curran and Sound Design by Carolyn Downing. Movement by Imogen Knight with Fight Directors Rachel Bown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown. Osnat Schmool is Vocal Arranger and Rehearsal Music Director. Simon Money and Michaela Kennen are Company Voice Work and Dialect Coach respectively.


It starts as a tickle of memory, then it’s unmistakable. So from this absorbing play set in Suffolk, March 1759 arises an a cappella version of Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill. It’s tempting not to reveal that wonderful moment (set by Osnat Schmool). There’s other pointers though – some made the text not the production – that render contemporary analogies in Lucy Kirkwood’s The Welkin beside the point. At one juncture someone descends in white, like a visitation. The optic refraction of this – like that of the Halley Comet about to vanish again – unsettles us into another world. It’s 1759 with a Doppler effect. Kirkwood’s ever-deft handling of science is scalloped round the edges.

It’s a play set – after three astonishing tableaux – over just a few hours, in one large 18th century room out of Hogarth or Longhi. Eggshell green, sparse, teeming with fourteen people, table, chairs, a bucket. Directed by James Macdonald with a meticulous unfolding rumble, it’s Bunny Christie’s set and costumes that strike you. The Lyttelton’s ideal for this.

First after the first of the book-like titles ‘Housework’ goes up, a frieze is revealed with twelve women in silhouette. Lit by Lee Curran with the rasp of Carolyn Downing’s sound, the variety of 18th century housework – polishing pewter, smoothing collars, beating, kneading scrubbing plucking – is rendered in period style.

Then a tenebrous one by candelight where Sally Poppy, later the accused, returns to her husband to claim money he’s already spent. He dobs her in instead. It’s less likely it’s her being covered in someone’s blood, more that she’s confessed to a pregnancy he’s no share in. Her lover’s executed for the murder of Alice Wax, eleven, daughter of Lady Wax. Sally’s only spared for the moment to ascertain if she’s truly pregnant. She might get transportation to America. Twelve empanelled matrons – who’ve known childbirth – are pressed into service. Luckily each comes forward to the Justice’s invisible voice to introduce themselves. Their findings will save or swing Sally.

Philip McGinley’s Will Coombes – the only man in that room – is crucially not allowed to speak, merely ask for the verdict. Beforehand he’s more active. His last recruit is someone he’s sweet on, Maxine Peake’s Elizabeth Luke, the midwife reluctant to leave churning against white sails of sheets, then suddenly determined to speak up for the loud, unrepentant Sally. To his plea that they’re both widowers, Elizabeth ripostes Coombes has a wife. ‘Yes but she is gone to Lowestoft.’ She adds of Sally: ‘was I who brought Sally into the world. Janet merely contributed the screaming.’ It’s clear from the outset Elizabeth will be the twelve’s leader.

Cecilia Noble’s Emma Jenkins, the prudish matriarch doesn’t hesitate dislike so much as spray it around like an aerosol, ready to jump on any salving testimony. Kirkwood though always springs something in her major characters. There’s Haydn Gwynne’s imperious Charlotte Cary, dismissive wife of the colonel. She’s another with a great reveal moment, as has Brigid Zengeni’s hitherto-dumb Sarah Hollis, who finds her voice to damnable purpose. June Watson, the 83-year-old Sarah Smith conjures a pragmatic world with her 21 children.

There’s fine work too from Dawn Sievewright’s Kitty Givens, a young Scottish woman both downright and deft; heavily-pregnant and smugly-mated Peg Carter, Aysha Kala’s deliciously complacent young wife; Judith Brewer, Jenny Galloway’s perfectly prepared gossip about that Lowestoft wife. Hara Yannas’ Ann Lavender, a poet’s wife who removed her last ‘E’ at his exhortation to bring refinement, has moved ‘to raise our four daughters here in peasant honesty’. It’s hard not see an eco-snob skewered in Ann(e), brought out with pointedly anxious gentility (no honest peasant she) when confronted with gentry and fashionable streets. Zainab Hasan’s Mary Middleton is a tour-de-force of an almost inarticulate young woman, barely cognizant of what’s expected. Wendy Kweh’s Helen Ludlow is a tiny harrowing of a woman seething with the death of all her children.

Sally Poppy as the accused is given a scorching frankness by Ria Zmitrowicz, unrepentant as she relates what happened. Even more striking, Sally’s raw urchin desire is expressed in 21st century demotic English, which differs to most others, though Kirkwood calibrates a degree of modernity to characters like Dr Willis. The point’s clear: a modern young woman is accused for being herself, though being Kirkwood it’s not as simple as that.

Garbed like an urchin Sally’s othered herself as dangerous, sexually autonomous, witchy. We’ve heard a character describe an aunt once arraigned for witchcraft, yet the enlightenment’s come knocking.

Sally’s sexual epiphany’s rendered too with stark power and Kirkwood’s unflinching in this depiction of womens’ agency in whatever circumstances. There’s a chilling isolation earlier when Sally wishes to relieve herself in a bucket and finds it difficult with a dress and manacles; a painful coping follows. Singularly, not even Elizabeth helps.

All are superb performances. We’re brought back to Peake as the gravitational pull of this production. Her Elizabeth is clear, tough-tender and like Mother Courage not able to show feeling at crucial junctures. Even Peake’s silence tells as you’re drawn to her imminent speech.

At a crucial moment one Doctor Willis (Laurence Ubong Williams) is brought in to effectively nullify any deliberations, deadlocked as they are. His cheery mix of enlightened bedside manner then refusal to shake Elizabeth’s hand is a scalpel-sharp portrayal of would-be modern men. He waxes on ‘a tyranny of the ovaries’ though in trying to excuse Sally’s actions on medical grounds he makes a blunt stab at enlightenment.

There’s striking moments throughout, like the end of Act One with a dodgy fireplace. There’s ensemble ones too that variegate a texture certainly trying to give as much as air as possible to the huge cast. The dialect and 18th century terms work well though accents come so dense at a very few points that you miss them – a pity. Only the text clarifies these. There’s a little simultaneous conversation between sets of women. This obscures for instance Emma’s confiding to Kitty: ‘I’ve always carried a knife since my uncle came home from the Navy when I was a girl.’ ‘He give it to you, did he?’ ‘No.’

Less linear and neat than Twelve Angry Men, with which it’ll be routinely contrasted, The Welkin’s zig-zag reveals and explosive climax makes nearly three hours sing, and it’s a far richer work. It does need to pick up, and at the same time drop a little authentic (and not) Suffolk for clarity. Both of these will almost certainly be present by the May 21st NT Live broadcast. This is a play to savour and see again. Already it’s no far-fetched contender for one of the best plays of 2020.

After Chimerica, The Children and to a great extent Mosquitoes some might grumpily assert that Kirkwood’s business is writing masterpieces. And picking apart anything she writes. It’s beside the point. Kirkwood’s work will endure and we’ll keep on finding new things in it. The Welkin is a hugely ambitious play in slow motion; it breaks out of historical context to blaze round like a warning. As it settles, there shouldn’t be any surprise if some of us see it revived soon; not least in 2061, when Halley’s Comet returns.