Review by Matthew Taylor
When I was thirteen or fourteen or summink, we had a school trip to the "Nash" (as we called it then, ostensibly to mock the kind of Theatre Studies luvvies we later became!) to see a production of "The Crucible". I can remember nothing at all about it except that I found it painfully dull and overlong, and for many a year since it’s remained in my head as a paradigm of how even as wonderful an art form as the Stage Play can end up as a plodding, unsmiling snoozefest in the wrong hands.
So you can probably estimate my sense of foreboding as I arrived at MADCAP for the latest Pepper’s Ghost production: "The Crucible". I’d had a long hard day and a tiring week, and I was about to sit for three hours – two whole football games’ worth of time! – and watch one of the few plays I have ever not enjoyed. It’s therefore a source of particular pleasure to me to be able to write this review, because it has a happy ending. The production was really really good! (beams with relief)
I dunno if it was my impatient teenage metabolism or just a duff rendition some twenty years ago, but the Pepper’s Ghost "Crucible" turned out to be an engaging play about Real People embroiled in the mass hysteria of – literally – the Witch Hunt mentality. It’s as relevant to society now as it was when Arthur Miller wrote it in the climate of McCarthyism, and a shrewd choice for this always impressive MK theatre bunch to take on – doubly so with its presence on the GCSE syllabus! ;-)
I could see one or two of the GCSE kids start to fidget a bit near the end – even in a good production like this I still think it’s overlong – but it’s testament to both the direction and the vast number of actors involved (21, with no doubling!!) that almost all of them still seemed to be paying attention. Interestingly on the night I saw it some overflow seating had been placed behind the area where the action was taking place, up on the old proscenium stage – and because this was full of the GCSE kids and their notepads, it looked a lot like a jury watching over proceedings from a lofty vantage point! Very apt.
With 21 actors involved, it was like a Who’s Who of the MK Acting World! There really is a lot of talent out among the grid roads! Subsequently I don’t really want to single out particular performances for praise too much, because everybody had their moments. The play is also very much designed for an ensemble, as a whole host of different characters rush on and off at various times. Having said that, John Proctor is First Among Ensembles, and Andy Davis gave a spellbinding portrayal of this good-hearted man caught up in the middle of this paranoid storm. It’s a great part to play, but even so his performance was excellent, a stand-out which ranks among the best I’ve ever seen in an MK show! Though I was also very pleased to see Tony back in action on the stage for the first time in ages as the bluntly spoken Giles Corey – and got genuinely upset when in Act Four it was revealed he’d been squashed to death!
If I have any quibble at all, it’s that it was a bit slow getting started – but I can’t work out if that was the performance or the script. There is a bewildering amount of the comings and goings of characters to begin with, as I’ve already mentioned. Certainly by Act Two and the more intimate scene between John and his wife Elizabeth (another good turn by the always impressive Natasha Ellis) I was properly gripped and felt as though things had warmed up – and then Act Three kicks off with the arrival of The Law (Richard Duncombe fabulously cast as the Deputy Governor called in to sort everything out – his stage presence matching effortlessly the authority of his role) and the energy never drops from then on.
So, not only another rave review for Pepper’s Ghost, but a rave review with knobs on. They’ve made me like "The Crucible" again, after two decades in the wilderness. I wonder what else I’ve been wrong about since 1988? Maybe girls don’t smell after all!!!