The Wicked Lady
Bryony Lavery, adapted from the novel by Magdalen King-Hall
New Vic, Newcastle-under-Lyme
The New Vic has a virtually unequalled reputation in the Midlands for brave, adventurous productions. It never ceases to amaze me that this 600-seater north Staffordshire theatre-in-the-round puts on ten home-produced shows a year, almost all of them of a very high quality.
When I heard the theatre was staging the world premiere of Bryony Lavery's adaptation of The Life and Death of the Wicked Lady Skelton with mid-air action representing the horse-riding sequences, I thought this time it was too audacious even for the New Vic to pull off.
I hadn't taken into account the fact that Lavery has written for the New Vic before and that The Wicked Lady is directed by the theatre's artistic director Theresa Heskins. The pair of them know exactly what works and what doesn't in this delightful space. The result is a gripping, slick, memorable production which is one of the finest pieces of theatre I've seen for several years.
It would have been pretty good without the mid-air magic, especially as Heskins throws in a few winning moves often seen at the New Vic. The actors' depiction of a stagecoach, with wheels held upright and everyone moving in unison, is especially effective. The aerial action, though, literally takes the production to another level.
The Wicked Lady recounts the tale of Miss Barbara Corbett who is delighted to become Lady Barbara Skelton by marriage only to find she has to "submit, yield, enjoy" and it's far more boring than she expected.
She embarks on a secret life as a highway robber, the adrenalin rush proving an exciting release from her existence which she regards as a prison.
But her adventures become more and more dangerous, leading to tragedy and betrayal as her wickedness multiplies with each mission.
Roisin Gallagher makes her first appearance at the New Vic as Barbara and gives a stunning performance.
Barbara is a complex character who doesn't elicit any sympathy; she's a woman of extremes, whether it be ecstatically looking forward to what she thinks will be an idyllic marriage or poisoning a servant to stop him revealing her secret.
Gallagher totally immerses herself in the role, revelling in Barbara's wickedness as her love of materialism manifests itself in gambling, lying and cheating.
There are also strong contributions from Marcello Walton as the highwayman Jerry who becomes Barbara's lover; Stephen Finegold as the servant Hogarth; and Michael Hugo in a variety of roles.
But to single out anyone is a bit of an injustice because all ten cast members are exceptionally good; most of them play multiple roles and switch effortlessly from one character to the next. The men who depict gossipy sewing women are a delight.
All have a crucial part to play in the aerial antics, guiding the ropes and harnesses if they're not flying themselves.
The New Vic brought in specialist aerial company Upswing for this production and they certainly ensure it takes off. Sitting astride saddles, Barbara and Jerry are composed and confident as they gallop through the countryside. And Jerry gracefully glides over Barbara as they sensually share his bed for the first time.
The coup de grace though is a clever, almost outrageous stunt in which a highwayman is hanged; without spoiling it for anyone who's about to see the show, it looks spectacular and takes your breath away.
It's also injudicious to select any of the creative team for praise as all do a remarkable job. But alongside Theresa Heskins' usual impeccable direction, Liz Cooke comes up with a simple yet effective set; fight director Kate Waters is responsible for some authentic scenes; and the music by Sue Moffat with James Earls-Davis, Adam Fenn and Russell Gregory is both atmospheric and appropriate.
This really is a wicked production in all senses of the word.
"The Wicked Lady" continues until July 25th
Reviewer: Steve Orme