In the mid-1600s, young Englishman Matthew Hopkins was responsible for condemning over one hundred women to death in his (self-appointed) role as Witchfinder General of Manningtree, Essex. Novelist Beth Underdown took Hopkins and his witch hunt, and created a fictional Hopkins sister with which to provide a different perspective on the witch-hunt mania he was at the heart of. Cue her immensely well-received 2017 novel The Witchfinder’s Sister, which has been adapted by Vickie Donoghue for the Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch stage in this year of our Lord, 2021.
Essex, 1645. Alice Hopkins (Lily Knight) finds herself widowed, pregnant, and forced to return to her childhood home in Manningtree to throw herself on the goodwill of her brother Matthew (George Kemp). But Manningtree is rife with rumours of witchcraft, and Matthew is poised to launch upon his infamous reign of terror. Alice races to reveal what’s compelling the obsessively cruel Witchfinder General, before more innocent women are found guilty.
I love books, I love theatre, and I love me a spooky atmosphere, so I was well happy to mosey along to this. I was certainly rewarded aesthetically. The production looks and feels fantastic. Libby Watson’s excellent set design cleverly divides the stage into rooms with door frames that stretch up into gallows and feature doors that are pulled up and dropped like guillotines, making manifest the sense of perpetual threat which hovers ominously overhead throughout the action. The handful of doorways and short staircases give a sense of small town claustrophobia, as well as upstairs/downstairs, and the gloaming effect created by Matt Haskins’s lighting wonderfully evokes the darkness of the place and season – England, winter, 1645 – as well as the chill and darkness of the pre-electrically lit world. The production looks wonderful and is well performed.
There’s a ‘but’ coming.
Bringing a novel that’s over 300 pages long to the stage is an act of enormous compression; much is inevitably lost in the process. In the case of The Witchfinder’s Sister, characterisation takes a hit, which has the knock-on effect of lessening the story’s impact. When the house lights came up I felt events had rushed to an end, like conversation when the bar calls for last orders, leaving a sense of something lacking, and for me the lack lay in character.
The standout role was that of Matthew’s servant girl, Grace (a wonderful Miracle Chance), who stood out precisely because she had personality; she felt real. Everyone else was doing their job as a dramatic device a bit too plainly. Matthew is cold from the outset; he and Alice never find pleasure in each other’s company. When they meet again after a five year separation, he stops her hug with a handshake and it’s all downhill from there. We never see any richness or complexity in the sibling relationship that would make the unravelling of it a compelling, heart-rending watch. This is nothing to do with any of the actors or even the writing: only that the characters selected to appear in the play are necessarily the ones best positioned to keep the story moving, but with a running time of under two hours, there is little opportunity for nuance or development.
There’s another ‘but’ coming.
The Witchfinder’s Sister has plenty of chilling moments, an assured cast, and some well-timed comic relief delivered with aplomb. The Salem joke in particular had me cackling away in my seat, and it is a particular joy to see an Essex story put on in an Essex venue. Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch’s programme is always one to keep an eye on; it’s a fantastic theatre I love returning to, and if you fancy a bit of atmospheric theatre, you’ll certainly get some shivers there this Halloween season.
Written by: Beth Underdown
Adapted by: Vickie Donoghue
Directed by: Jonnie Riordan
Design by: Libby Watson
Lighting by: Matt Haskins
Produced by: Matthew Russell
Sound Design by: Owen Crouch
The WItchfinder’s Sister is playing at Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch until 30 October. Further information and bookings via the below link.