Reviews: The Crucible & Blithe Spirit, both Pitlochry Festival Theatre

Theatre

 

The Crucible

Pitlochry Festival Theatre

Various dates until September 27

 

Blithe Spirit

Pitlochry Festival Theatre

Various dates until September 28

 

By MARK BROWN

Crucible - Pitlochry
Harry Long and Fiona Wood in The Crucible. Photo: Douglas McBride

This production of Arthur Miller’s opus The Crucible, by Pitlochry Festival Theatre’s new artistic director Elizabeth Newman, begins with an emphatic bang. A live rock band blasts out some high-octane music while, towards the back of the stage, we see a group of young women dancing frenetically.

It is as good, and as arresting, an introduction to this great play as I have seen. It takes us sharply to the heart of the American dramatist’s allegory (in which the catastrophic witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692-93 stand in for the brutal red scare of McCarthyism in the United States in the 1950s).

In Salem, the chance discovery of a piece of forbidden child’s play was the catalyst for a calamitous chain of events that ended in many faithful Christians being hanged on the testimony of terrified children.

Miller saw this Puritanical frenzy echoed terrifyingly in McCarthy’s obsessive pursuit of communists and their “fellow travellers”. Indeed, there is something disquietingly prescient about reviewing this play now, when President Trump is attacking the so-called “Squad” of four radical Congresswomen of colour, not only on the basis of race, but also on grounds of their supposed “communism”.

If only Newman’s staging was able to maintain the energy and the drama of its opening. Fiona Wood gives a strong and frightening performance as Abigail Williams, the girl who leads the children’s charges of witchery. Opposite her, Harry Long grows into the role of the flawed hero (and onetime adulterer with Williams) John Proctor, finally delivering a powerful conclusion with the famous “it is my name” speech (in which he retracts the false confession the court has wrung from him).

Elsewhere, however, Ali Watt overplays the hapless Reverend Parris, while Barbara Hockaday, despite a decent performance, finds that a headscarf is insufficient cover for the fact that she is much too young to play the pivotal role of Rebecca Nurse.

Designer Adrian Rees’s large gantry, which is raised and lowered as required, is not without its dramatic effects, but is also cumbersome at times. His abstractly modern costumes are somewhat undermined by the specificity of the early-20th century-style American police uniforms.

Ultimately, Newman does get to the tragic heart of the play, but, frustratingly, her dramatic conviction is marred by the inconsistencies of an intermittent production.

Blithe Spirit - Pitlochry
Ali Watt, Claire Dargo and Barbara Hockaday in Blithe Spirit at Pitlochry Festival Theatre. Photo: Douglas McBride

If Pitlochry’s Miller (which marks a welcome widening of PFT’s repertoire) is variable, its staging of Blithe Spirit, by Noel Coward (long a favourite of the Perthshire playhouse), takes something of a conceptual leap. The comedy, in which socialite and novelist Charles Condomine is haunted by the ghost of his deceased former wife, Elvira, was first staged, in London, in 1941.

It is, to my mind, very much a play of its time. With its Cowardish depiction of witty and somewhat louche English upper class characters, and its nod to the conventions of farce (Charles’s second wife, Ruth, can’t see or hear Elvira’s ghost, giving rise to all manner of confusions), it was a pleasant wartime distraction. At no point does director Gemma Fairlie’s production justify her decision to the drag the piece into the 21st-century.

Nor, it should be said, does Coward’s writing (which is vibrant and droll, but hardly biting) justify the regular, but, in my opinion, misguided, comparisons between his work and the brilliantly satirical plays of Oscar Wilde. Coward, it seems to me, is almost Wilde in reverse. The English writer (who came from a relatively modest background) always appears to be infatuated with “high society”. The Irishman, by contrast, spat out his silver spoon and used his considerable intellect to ravage the upper classes.

That said, Fairlie’s production enjoys some fine performances, not least from Barbara Hockaday (as the vindictive ghost), Claire Dargo (the Sloaneish Ruth), Ali Watt (Charles) and Deirdre Davis (the gloriously over-the-top medium Madame Arcati). Adrian Rees commits another faux-pas (in the midst of a nice set) with cheap-looking, tinfoil covered furniture that does nothing for PFT’s well-deserved reputation as a home for high quality design.

For dates for both shows, visit: pitlochryfestivaltheatre.com

These reviews were originally published in The Herald on Sunday and the Sunday National on July 28, 2019

© Mark Brown

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