Review: Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern, by Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Eastern Angles, touring until October 17

David Acton, Hannah Hutch and Patti Love in Jane Wenham- The Witch of Walkern, an Eastern Angles-O

David Acton, Hannah Hutch and Patti Love in Jane Wenham- The Witch of Walkern, an Eastern Angles-Out of Joint co-production which is currently touring Suffolk and Essex - Credit: Archant

The hysteria surrounding the witch-hunts of the late 17th and early 18th centuries created one of the darkest periods in our history. It was a time when infirmity and malicious accusation were enough to condemn you to death.

David Acton, Hannah Hutch and Patti Love in Jane Wenham- The Witch of Walkern, an Eastern Angles-O

David Acton, Hannah Hutch and Patti Love in Jane Wenham- The Witch of Walkern, an Eastern Angles-Out of Joint co-production which is currently touring Suffolk and Essex - Credit: Archant

It is a time vividly brought to life in Eastern Angles latest touring co-production Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern. It highlights the fact that the vast majority of the people tried and condemned for being witches were elderly women – women, who were not only clearly innocent of any wrong-doing, but were often herbalists and mid-wives and were well known for helping people in their communities.

Penned by National Theatre-sponsored playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz, who also picked up an Oscar last year for co-writing the screenplay to Ida (Best Foreign Language Film), she shows how superstition, religious zeal and a fear of outsiders fuelled a bizarre form of paranoia which took hold of the nation following the English Civil War.

Although Jane Wenham, portrayed with fierce independence by Amanda Bellamy, is the title character, the real focus of the play lies with the contrasting beliefs of Francis Hutchinson, the Bishop, and Samuel Crane, the new rector, the men who determine the fate of the strong-minded women in their parish.

Hutchinson, played with quiet authority, by David Acton is very much an enlightened thinker. Although he passionately believes in his faith, he does not believe there are creatures such as witches. He sees accusations of witchcraft for what they are – opportunities to settle old scores or just cause mischief.

David Acton, Hannah Hutch and Patti Love in Jane Wenham- The Witch of Walkern, an Eastern Angles-O

David Acton, Hannah Hutch and Patti Love in Jane Wenham- The Witch of Walkern, an Eastern Angles-Out of Joint co-production which is currently touring Suffolk and Essex - Credit: Archant

Crane, on the other hand, is given a missionary zeal by Tim Delap. For all his youthful fire, Crane is the one stuck in the past. It is also suggested that his holy mission is being corrupted by an unresolved sexual conflict raging inside him.

Meanwhile, the women of Walkern are a nicely drawn mix of earth mothers, tavern keepers, wayward young girls and there is a freed slave Remi Martha, played with tremendous dignity by Cat Simmons. She regards the events going on around her with a benevolent outsider’s eye and knowledge of a wider world. She may now be Rev Hutchinson’s housekeeper and his lover but in another world she was captured by slavers and had her two children taken from her.

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It’s a play with plenty of warmth and humour. The characters are affectionately drawn but playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz and director Ria Parry give the audience a lot to think about on the way home. Many of the situations are not so far removed from our own world, a feeling which is reinforced by the fact that the characters are believably real. Hannah Hutch as the 18 year old Ann Thorn is particularly effective as our guide to this colourful village.

When we first meet her, her mother has just been hanged as a witch which sets up the rest of the play very cleverly. We are immediately sympathtic to this anguished teenager and feel that if they can hang Ann’s mum then anyone could be accused.

An atmospheric and thoughtful new play, Jane Wenham: The Witch of Walkern is populated with a host of strong characters and its unnerving sense of dread keeps audiences on the edge of their seats until the end.

Brilliant.

Andrew Clarke

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