This ADC mainshow sees the transposition of the 1590s Renaissance drama Arden of Faversham into a stripped back, raw nerve of 1920s Britain. This is not an arbitrary stylization: the 1920s house backdrop creates an insular sense of luxurious claustrophobia. The set design from Ciaran Walsh should be applauded in its attention to detail and its fearsome aura of entrapment. This played into the hands of Anna Jennings’ gender-conscious play, which promised an exploratory exhibition of ‘coercion, classism and patriarchy’.
Isobel Laidler’s Alice was ‘off the chain’: full of dark energy and subtlety, Laidler should be lauded for her excitingly nuanced performance, and she seemed to have a finger on the pulse of her character from the start. Arden’s darkly humorous death scene was expertly executed by Tom Chamberlain, who exhibited a strong performance throughout.
Joe Spence’s on-edge neuroticism destabilised the play to its unending advantage: his Mosbie was, at his best, pretty electric. While scenes were occasionally jarred by an inability to work the set (a ‘pull’ door was repeatedly pushed), Seth Kruger’s Clarke was consistently strong. Though sometimes a little inert in silent approval – his character could perhaps have been directed to do more on occasion – Henry Eaton-Mercer’s Franklin was exceptionally good. Black Will’s misadventures were at times rather funny – however, the humour was relied upon little, and so added little.
Despite a series of largely rather wonderful performances, there were moments when the set looked vaguely precarious. The gauze screen and smoke indicating the movement of the action outside was brilliantly effective. The house, just visible through the screen, became an ominously spectral reminder of the impending return to the claustrophobic domesticity that Jennings and Bruce-Jones seem to point to as the root of the drama. The occasional failure of the gauze screen to descend fully after being caught on a table was another instance of slight prop malfunction which one hopes will be ironed out after the first night.
Other than some rather unconvincing and clumsy bullet wounds, which are admittedly difficult to pull off, there was little to complain of in costuming and make up. The glamour of the 1920s was effectively tempered so as not to be gimmicky, and while I was unsure if the time setting actually contributed much to the movements of the drama or the exploration of gender and domesticity, it was considerately and sincerely done.
Overall, this excellent production’s moments of true brilliance more than made up for the few hiccups, part of which must be attributed to opening night. The strength of the acting is a draw alone, and the aesthetics of this performance deserve commendation.