There was an actual witch hunter during the English Civil War called Matthew Hopkins (George Kemp), who was said to have been responsible for having arranged for the executions of at least one hundred witches during his time as ‘Witchfinder General’, apparently a position he gave himself (not actually having been appointed to that office by the Lord Protector, or indeed anyone else). Invariably, a theatrical adaptation of the novel The Witchfinder’s Sister brings to mind the Arthur Miller play The Crucible, a point acknowledged in this production by an explicit reference to Salem, Massachusetts, done in such a way that brings some sort of closure to what eventually happens to one of the characters.
There is more subtlety in this story than there is in the Salem witch hunts, if only because Hopkins conducts his investigations off-stage. There are no court proceedings to witness, just a book of meticulous records maintained by Matthew which his sister Alice (Lily Knight) eventually tracks down (just before the interval, conveniently enough, giving patrons a good enough reason to come back for the second half if they wish to know any of its contents).
Tragedy has struck Alice: having lost her husband in a nasty accident, she finds herself back ‘home’ in Manningtree, Essex. But much has changed since she left, and while it remained one of those settlements where ‘everybody’ more or less knew everyone else, and everyone else’s business, the production does well to portray the place as dark and depressing: in the first half, it never appears to be daytime, and rarely does any light shine through in the second.
A relatively abrupt ending leaves some loose ends. Mary Phillips (Jamie-Rose Monk), Hopkins’ senior servant, exercises discretion where she can, leaving Alice to rely on maid Grace (Miracle Chance) to tell her what her own brother will not. One might have wished for more details on the supposed witches in the community, though the show’s title needs to be borne in mind too, and in this regard, the audience does find out a considerable amount of detail about Alice Hopkins – and life has not been kind to her.
With the majority of scenes set in Hopkins’ house, much of the narrative detail comes second-hand: this even extends to what is said inside the house – I should have kept a tally of how many times Grace began a sentence with, “Mary Phillips said…” It wasn’t, therefore, always easy to maintain interest. Some creative licence has been deployed with the story, not least because there are scant details about the real Matthew Hopkins, let alone any sisters he may have had. There are some contemporary parallels to be drawn – there may not be literal witch hunts in this day and age (well, not in Essex, anyway) but misogyny hasn’t exactly gone away.
With staging as impressive as this (it’s convincingly dark but the audience is always able to see everything), there are a few minor details that could be addressed, most notably corded handheld lamps, which appeared to have an electrical power source – in 1645. And unless I missed it, there was something about Matthew’s infancy that resulted in physical injury, which – like so much in this story – remained unresolved. An intriguing piece of theatre that leaves the audience to piece together the remaining jigsaw puzzles in the story. Or not, if one is not inclined.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Set in 1645, The Witchfinder’s Sister follows the story of Alice Hopkins, who comes home to Manningtree to live with her brother after her husband is tragically killed. But home is no longer a place of safety, as rumours of witchcraft spread through the town. Alice discovers her brother much changed, as a reign of hysterical terror takes hold. Alice begins a desperate race to reveal what’s compelling the obsessively cruel Witchfinder General, before more innocent women are found guilty.
Playing Bridget is Debra Baker (Russell T Davies’ It’s a Sin, Channel 4), with Miracle Chance as Grace (Be More Chill, Shaftesbury Theatre, West End and Other Palace), George Kemp as Matthew (Bridgerton, Netflix), Lily Knight as Alice (Saint Maud, Film 4, BFI and Escape Plan Productions), Jamie-Rose Monk as Mary (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bridge Theatre) and Anne Odeke as Rebecca (The Winter’s Tale, Royal Shakespeare Company).
The production is directed and choreographed by Jonnie Riordan (Nigel Slater’s Toast, West End/UK Tour), with design by Libby Watson (The Philanthropist, Trafalgar Studios, West End), lighting design by Matt Haskins (Peter Pan Goes Wrong, Apollo Theatre West End, UK, Australasian Tours) and sound design by Owen Crouch (I, Cinna (The poet), Unicorn Theatre).
THE WITCHFINDER’S SISTER by Beth Underdown
Adapted for the stage by Vickie Donoghue
Directed and Choreographed by Jonnie Riordan
Design by Libby Watson
Lighting Design by Matt Haskins
Sound Design by Owen Crouch
Executive Producer Mathew Russell
Debra Baker as Bridget
Miracle Chance as Grace
George Kemp as Matthew
Lily Knight as Alice
Jamie-Rose Monk as Mary
Anne Odeke as Rebecca
7 – 30 October 2021
A Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch production