By Jen Bolsover
Three extremely strong performances fuel Dawn State Theatre’s new play about the Pendle witches. Christopher Birks, Dan Nicholson and Amy Blair portray Potts, Nowell and Jennet Device, two ex-Justices of the Peace and the daughter of a convicted witch. They’re down on their luck and scraping a living by acting out the downfall of the Lancastrian coven for anyone who will pay.
The power struggles and personal tensions within the trio begin to show as the plot unfolds, making the play much more than a straightforward depiction of historical events. Amy Blair deserves particular praise for her portrayal of angry but unbroken Jennet, a grown woman who has not forgotten how she was bribed as a child and conditioned into giving evidence that condemned her mother. Her trauma is balanced by her awareness of how ridiculous and heartless the troupe’s play-acting is, and her sense of being trapped in this life. It’s a top notch performance.
But if the show belongs to Blair, she is well-matched by Birks and Nicholson. Nicholson brings warmth and gravitas to the role of Nowell, the glue that holds the trio together, a likeable man who has done terrible things. Birks gives an intense performance as the bitter, volatile Potts.
Gareth Jandrell’s script is strong but subtle, bringing history to life without being enslaved by it. The world of the play is clearly drawn and challenges a few common assumptions about the 17th century witch craze – for example, when a farmer approaches Nowell to complain of a curse placed on his family, his concerns are very nearly dismissed. Despite believing in the existence and malevolence of witches, Nowell is very well aware of how such accusations can be abused, and not inclined to lend credence with no evidence. In Jandrell’s hands, the fears and concerns of these characters are clear and there is no lazy lapsing into portraying stock bumpkins. Without overplaying the modern parallels, Jandrell delicately draws comparisons between attitudes towards the poor and desperate in 1615 and towards their counterparts four hundred years later.
The direction is slick and the music (composed by Nicholson) links everything together beautifully. This is a clever, lively play that anyone with any interest in history should make sure they see.