Gunter at the Royal Court Theatre | Review

A gig play, or a play with live songs, this is one of those shows with a selective use of microphones, though at least Lydia Higman, a historian, can justify using one, because, as she says, “I’m not an actor playing a historian”. So for the sake of clarity, and to prevent any possible hecklers interrupting her to say they can’t hear what she’s saying, she’s using one. Twenty or so characters are played by three women, Julia Grogan, Norah Lopez Holden and Hannah Jarrett-Scott, ranging from judges to maidservants.

Hannah Jarrett-Scott, Julia Grogan, Norah Lopez Holden. (c) Alex Brenner.
Hannah Jarrett-Scott, Julia Grogan, Norah Lopez Holden. (c) Alex Brenner.

At the heart of the story is Anne Gunter, who lived in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, in North Moreton, a couple of miles east of Didcot, Oxfordshire. In 1598, her father Brian, in the words of an on-stage caption, “kills two boys at a football match”, John and Richard Gregory, and a few years later, Anne has reason to think she is bewitched. This is not, the production is at pains to point out, the same as being a witch, but rather possessed by an evil spirit. The Gunters think it is the Gregory family behind the bewitching.

Some of the songs included in the show drive the narrative forward. Others, however, get in the way, with the final number’s lyrics being repeated so many times it was entirely possible to have understood a YouTube video explanation of the second law of thermodynamics in the same amount of time. Or at least that’s how it felt – it was a slight surprise to discover how early the night still was on leaving the theatre (it’s a seventy-minute show).

Contemporary video footage of scenes of football fans at their worst plays before the show begins, brawling and exchanging blows, and so on. It is difficult, at face value, to understand the reason why such incidents were being shown, and what relevance they have to a seventeenth-century witchcraft case. I can only assume it has something to do with some things never changing – with sport and society being, from time to time, as brutal and violent now as it was over four hundred years ago.

What also hasn’t changed, in some respects, is how women like Anne can find themselves used by men like Brian, coerced as she was into behaviour that might have earned her a (somewhat obscure) place in history but at great cost to her personal reputation. As for the production, it uses the available performance space very well, and regularly engages patrons by way of audience participation – let’s just say, a bit like a stand-up gig, sit in the front row at your own risk.

There were moments when much of the audience was roaring with laughter. Amongst all the humour, however, some pertinent points about the criminal justice system and the mistreatment of women in society feel rather diluted. Commendably, the audience is left to make the link between deception in 1605 and ‘fake news’ and artificially generated images in 2024 for themselves. The outcome, for reasons explained in the narrative, is inconclusive, and some of the sex-related jokes, while never offensive, were very repetitive. So many dramatic techniques are thrown in that the production, rather ironically, became less engaging as it went on. That said, energetic, versatile performances and actor-musicianship were a delight to witness.

3 Star Review

Review by Chris Omaweng

A disturbing history of murder and witchcraft that all kicked off with a football match.

In a small village just outside Oxford in 1604, Anne Gunter starts convulsing, vomiting pins, and accusing local women of bewitching her.

Two boys have been murdered by local brute Brian Gunter at a football match and their mum wants justice. But Brian is the richest and most powerful man in the village, and has an ego too fragile to tolerate public slander. A nasty feud begins, and when Brian’s daughter Anne starts demonstrating strange afflictions, an allegation is made: she has been bewitched. Dirty Hare introduces a harrowing, real-life tale of abuse and fear set in the idyll of a country scarred by witch trials.

Dirty Hare’s award-winning production of Gunter, co-created by Lydia Higman, Julia Grogan and Rachel Lemon, transfers to London following its sold-out premiere at Summerhall at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2023.

For its Fringe run, Gunter was awarded the Scotsman Fringe First Award 2023, Playbill’s Pick of the Fringe, Lyn Gardner’s Pick of the Fringe and Dirty Hare were named one of The Stage’s Top Breakthrough Theatre Makers.

The Company
Julia Grogan – CO-CREATOR AND CAST
Lydia Higman – CO-CREATOR AND CAST
Hannah Jarrett-Scott – CAST
Norah Lopez Holden – CAST
Lydia Higman – COMPOSER, LYRICIST AND HISTORIAN
Rachel Lemon – CO-CREATOR AND DIRECTOR
Anna Orton – DESIGNER
Amy Daniels – LIGHTING DESIGNER
Roly Botha – SOUND DESIGNER
Anisha Fields – ASSISTANT DESIGNER
Aline David – MOVEMENT DIRECTOR & CHOREOGRAPHER
Michelle Alise – VIDEO/ PROJECTION
Rebecca Whitbread – VOICE COACH
Helen Mugridge – PRODUCTION MANAGER
Aime Neeme – STAGE MANAGER

Gunter
Co-created by Lydia Higman, Julia Grogan and Rachel Lemon
Wed 03 Apr – Thu 25 Apr 2024
https://royalcourttheatre.com/

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