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Theatre review: The Crucible 
3rd-Jun-2010 12:19 am
My somewhat extreme theatregoing habits sometimes throw up unintentional "themed" days - a couple of months ago there were the two Tennessee Williams plays bookending his career, seen a few days apart, next month I have a four-day period bouncing between two theatres, each showing a two-part story, and in between I have two Arthur Miller plays in as many days.

Taking advantage of the fact that his theatre darkens as the play goes on, Timothy Sheader at the Open Air Theatre has put on The Crucible, Miller's classic tale of the Salem witch trials. On Jon Bausor's clever set, the floor of which is in the shape of a simple wooden house with the "doors" and "windows" actually being trapdoors, a couple of girls fainting escalates rapidly into a literal witch-hunt from which nobody in town is safe, and which soon becomes a convenient way to get rid of someone you don't like much, simply by pointing the finger of suspicion their way. The programme notes are keen to point out that the play's attacks on paranoia are relevant to any era, and while this is true as someone who'd not seen or read the play before it's interesting how clearly its original target, McCarthyism, is evident, especially in the no-win situation the townspeople are put in - betray their friends or die.

The slowly decreasing sunlight gives the play a lot of atmosphere, but Sheader also effective adds to it with an almost-constantly present chorus of the girls who started it all (bulked out by girls from E15 Acting School) and who at times reminded me of the Midwich Cuckoos, revelling in the devastation they're causing. This is used to great effect in the trial scene, helped by Paul Keoghan's lighting. Most of the cast are good - Emily Taafe is very sinister as Abigail, Oliver Ford Davies turns up in the second half to lend his dulcet tones to Deputy-Governor Darnforth, and favourite-round-these-parts Philip Cumbus is great at showing the range of emotions Reverend John Hale goes through, originally summoned as a sort of Church expert on demonic posessions, soon to be sidelined as the witch trials become a forum for town politics. Unfortunately I was less convinced by Patrick O'Kane in the crucial role of John Proctor. As the emotional core of the play I just couldn't care about him. His accent may have been a contributing factor here; Charmian Hoare is listed as dialect coach, but (and in any case surely, since it dates from before recorded sound, any attempt to reproduce an early colonial accent is mainly guesswork?) everyone pretty much does their own thing. So there's a lot of Westcountry, the odd bit of Irish, some American-ish voices. O'Kane's accent of choice sounded to me like Dutch, and some of the time I missed a lot of what he was saying. Add the fact that an 8 o'clock start is pretty late for a 3+ hour play (it ended at 11:11, hence me not getting home until after midnight) and by the last scene I was getting very distracted.

Overall this wasn't entirely successful in my opinion, but the production does contain some excellent moments along the way. And as for staging it outdoors, at times this contributes great atmosphere; while at others it's amusing to see a play that features recurring, ominous bird imagery, get occasionally stage-invaded by a pigeon.

The Crucible by Arthur Miller is booking until the 19th of June at the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre.
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