Norwich is blessed with a range of companies offering top quality theatre these days, and the Sewell Barn company give us a range of productions, often with challenging or unusual subjects.

This week they are offering Orca, a play by Matt Grinter that looks into a closed world of ritual in an island community. Director Sabrina Poole has created a moving production of a play that can never be easy to either participate in or to watch.

On the unnamed island the villagers depend on successful fishing, but when Orca whales visit and decimate the stocks they turn to folklore and old ritual to banish the Orca. This appears to take the form of a happy dance ceremony which chooses a pretty young girl who is then taken out to sea on the fishing boats. What happens there is never made explicit, but is clearly traumatic and damaging for the girl involved.

We see Maggie (Sarah Jenkins) being fussed by younger sister Fan (Emma Smith) who is desperate to be picked as the ‘Daughter’ at the dance. They have lost their mother, who came from off the island, in an unexplained earlier tragedy. Maggie seems less than keen on Fan being picked, as she herself had been once before, but suffers the wrath of her father Joshua (Pip Dunn) for ‘telling lies’. 

They are joined by the battered and bruised figure of Gretchen (Abi Tacon), who has been found washed up on the seashore with rope burns on her legs. The cause of her distress remains unknown for most of the drama. The final character to visit the family is the village patriarch, referred to rather confusingly as ‘The Father’, played by Phillip Rowe. He is manipulative and coercive, pushing the family to send their young daughter to the dance, but insisting that she must be joined by a complicit and silenced Maggie.

It is implied that the abuse suffered by the chosen ‘Daughter’ involves the ‘Father’ as they are at sea but in the way of communities that appear to tolerate abuse it is never spoken of directly, even when the evidence becomes unavoidable later.

I struggled with this play. It is undoubtedly a good production, beautifully acted and presented, but for me the failure to make the abuse explicit leaves me feeling that the play itself is complicit with the community it depicts. I spent too much of the play wondering whether my assumptions about what was happening were correct or not, and I feel that this detracts from the importance of lifting the cloak of community secrecy from abuse if we are to make progress and avoid repeating old mistakes. You may say that this is the point of the story, but it is a brave playwright that drags us through degrees of misery with no real redemption at some point. There are some jarring details – if the dance is an annual event, why does Gretchen wash up the day before the next dance, with blood on her dress on the day itself? 

I don’t think Matt Grinter quite makes it work – we sit through a lot of very clear if oblique references to what happens, but at the end there is a bit of a chaotic rush and too many unanswered questions, and at the point where we could expect some resolution of the anguish raised in most of the text we are left with no explanation, no resolution. Don’t take my word for it, go and watch this play and see if you come to a different conclusion to mine, and do please comment below on this review. What is beyond criticism is the performance and dedication of the Sewell Barn cast and crew in their presentation of this difficult drama.

Emma Smith and Sarah Jenkins both give touching and engaging performances as the two sisters, but they are constrained by a script that if it were on television would have us all yelling at the screen saying ‘just bloody tell her what happened’. In the intriguing context of the Sewell Barn we are of course far too polite to do this. In previous reviews (not about this company) I have caused concern by  being critical of the writing, and then the actors who have given a lot of time and effort to a production are somewhat hurt by this, so I need to be crystal clear that the only problems with this work are down to the writer, not the cast, crew, director or company.

Meanwhile I cannot wait for the next Sewell Barn Theatre production starting on the 14th July, the sublime Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas. See you there!

Orca by Sewell Barn Theatre is on 2-4 and 8-11 June at 7.30pm, with a matinée performance on 11th June. Tickets and further information :

© Julian Swainson, Norwich Eye, 2nd June 2022

Sarah Jenkins, Abi Tacon and Emma Smith in Orca – photo supplied by Sewell Barn Theatre