Jo Parker Sessions and Emma Smith in The Welkin – photo © Sean Owen
Sewell Barn Theatre may be a small company but their ambition is sky high. If you have any doubt about this, then get along to their charming venue on Constitution Hill for the current production of The Welkin. This is a play packed full of drama, with an almost all female cast throwing issues of sex, gender, death, love and fairness at us with more panache than any episode of Eastenders ever managed.
The Welkin, written by Lucy Kirkwood, is set in a bit of the Waveney valley we may vaguely recognise but may not be completely sure about, since it is about events in 1759. There are local accents aplenty, of unverifiable accuracy, and numerous local references to keep you amused in a Nimmo Twins manner. We may never know whether love died or went to Lowestoft, unless you pay closer attention than I am capable of.
A young woman, a feisty free spirit called Sally Poppy (Emma Smith) is found guilty of slaughtering the child of a local landowning family. Following her conviction a jury of twelve local women are called to ascertain whether or not she is with child, and therefore cannot be hanged. The courthouse debate of these twelve women forms the bulk of this drama, with new twists and turns throughout. This discussion brings every woman to a confrontation with their own past, their own character, with several unexpected twists and turns.
We are given a grim insight to a society where rich men could rape with impunity, where women were judged by their child yielding capacity, but where the women all lived in a very close and closed community with very specific roles and regard amongst their peers. Besides Sally the key character is Elizabeth Luke (Jo Parker Sessions) the village midwife who also brought Sally into the world. Elizabeth is the strongest character in the play and determined to seek a fair outcome for Sally, for reasons which become more apparent as the drama proceeds. Her zeal for justice brings a reaction from women who for various reasons have set their mind for the young woman to be hanged in short order.
The context that gives this play its name is the vault of the sky above us, troubled by the appearance of Halley’s Comet, an event few are likely to to see repeated in a lifetime on the once in 79 years schedule it seems to follow. The disturbance of the comet is mirrored by the disturbance in the closeknit community.
Emma Smith gives a great performance as the wild child woman Sally determined to go her own way regardless of convention and expectation, even when her belligerence seems to put her neck at risk. She faces a silent majority suddenly given voice in deciding her fate, and it goes about as badly as possible for much of the play, yet she is increasingly vindicated while her tormentors’ characters crumble. The key relationship in this drama is between Sally and the midwife Elizabeth who clings to a determination to prevent the execution with a passion hard to understand until some hidden truths emerge. Jo Parker Sessions gives a fine account of this complex character.
This is a memorable and moving drama which takes you on an emotional rollercoaster. There is a lot about sex and some chilling violence, yet the women’s frank and vulgar language is a joy. This play will haunt your dreams for days to come, but don’t be dissuaded by that – it is good to have a narrative set historically in places nearby that can go so deep into the issues of the role and rights of women in English society. The patriarchy does not come out too well, getting its balls squeezed quite often, but the depressing tyranny of the land owning rich remains virtually unchallenged. There are one or two distracting details of little consequence in this long play, but overall it is well written and keeps our attention throughout, thanks to a very capable cast and an imaginative director, Jez Pike.
The set design meets the challenge of accommodating a large cast in a small performing space with some curious details, including giving the Barn an earth floor which gives an appropriate flavour and aroma to the whole auditorium. Spare a thought for the cleaners here.
Set a century after the Witchfinder General terrorised women in this area there are still elements of sorcery and magic in the women’s views and prejudices, with superstition mixing with homespun remedies. The Welkin manages to convey all this, and the feel of rural life, without becoming patronising or cheesy. In spite of the serious themes the play has a lot of humour with some real laugh out loud lines occasionally.
Sewell Barn Theatre have a right to feel very proud of their achievement in bringing this large, complex and demanding work so effectively into their atmospheric venue. Every cast member is given space to develop their own character. This impressive show follows another winner, Under Milk Wood, and sets a high level of anticipation for the next Sewell Barn offer of Pinter’s Betrayal in late November. Don’t miss The Welkin.
© Julian Swainson, Norwich Eye, 13th October 2022
The Welkin by Lucy Kirkwood plays at the Sewell Barn Theatre from 13 – 15 and 19 – 22 October at 7.30pm with a matinee performance on the 22nd October. www.ticketsource.co.uk/sewellbarn or 03336 663366