Witches in the County of Lancaster

‘An incendiary new play about power, fear and fanaticism’ is how the programme describes Gareth Jandrell’s latest work for Dawn State Theatre Company. The plot revolves around a touring trio of performers – Potts (Christopher Birks) and Nowell (Dan Nicholson) achieved fame throughout the county of Lancaster by dispatching of the much feared Pendle Witches. Accompanied by a disgruntled Jennet (Amy Blair), the youngest Pendle child that survived the witch trial, they tour the country regaling others with their tale, in an attempt to regain their lost popularity.

The premise and story behind this play is sound and keeps the audience engaged. The characters re-enact their ‘play within a play’ and constantly squabble, giving the impression that these three have been putting this show on for far too long and are growing tired of it. Potts (Birks) has an inner rage and desperate need to regain his lost popularity; Nowell (Nicholson) is more pensive and jaded after the years on the road; Jennet (Blair) is all grown up and now has her own opinion on the whole series of events. Each scene is interspersed with original songs that Nicholson composed for the play. Poignant lyrics are sung in a Renaissance/ early Baroque style, with modal harmonies and plainsong to uphold the production’s authenticity.

The most interesting character out of the three is Jennet. Even when not involved in the scene, her expressions reveal a myriad of internally conflicting emotions. Sometimes she will obey and play her part; other times she will be bland and despondent; others still she will embellish and attempt to absolve herself or any presumed mistakes in her past. The moral dilemma is clear here – Jennet is being persecuted for her involvement in the tale as a child, but to what extent was she simply led along by her family and too innocent to understand any of her actions? As the play progresses, she becomes bolder and more unruly as she begins to rail against the captors who have now become her family.

By comparison the other two actors a bit one dimensional. Granted their parts have less emotional turmoil, but Potts (Birks) maintains a stubborn anger throughout that could have some ebb and flow. Likewise Nowell (Nicholson) remains calm on the surface but doesn’t let his bubbling rage come through enough in the final scene. The play is well written and intriguing, but needs to focus less on the story and more on the characters in order to make it burst out of its shell.

The Wonderful Discovery of Witches in the County of Lancaster played Pleasance Courtyard as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. For more information, see the Fringe website.