The Octagon, Bolton
Bolton's Octagon Theatre opens the year with its fourth Arthur Miller play since the writer's death in 2005, this time with his powerful historical allegory The Crucible.
In 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts, a group of young girls fall ill after dancing in the woods, and they discover that if they accuse others of influencing them with witchcraft, they not only get themselves out of trouble but are able to settle old scores against others in the village. While most of the village gets taken in by the accusations, farmer John Proctor, who once had an affair with the girls' ringleader Abigail, is dismissive of the superstitious madness; but then his protests become more active when his wife is accused and threatened with execution.
The Octagon has been configured as in-the-round, which is rarely used at this theatre but adds greatly to the intimacy of the production. Richard Foxton's design consists of a simple wooden floor and wooden furniture, which works perfectly. There is some atmospheric and sometimes heavily-dramatic music from composer Christopher Madin, which is very effective but sounds a little dull through the theatre's inadequate sound system.
There are some excellent performances from a cast that is so large it can only just fit on the stage for the curtain call. Chook Sibtain, despite coming on looking like Clint Eastwood in the first scene - you can almost hear the Ennio Morricone music as he swaggers on - gives a powerful performance as John Proctor, with excellent support from Mairead Conneely as his wife Elizabeth. Catherine Kinsella as Abigail comes over as rather 'prim and proper' and doesn't give any hint of the wildness that the others attribute to her. Matthew Rixon gives a superb performance as Reverend Hale, the intellectual witchcraft expert who gradually loses all confidence in the legal proceedings and blames himself for the executions.
There are also some stand-out performances in some of the smaller parts, including the superb Leigh Symmonds as reluctant court office Ezekiel Cheever, Kay Purcell as servant Tituba, Eileen O'Brien as old upright citizen Rebecca Nurse and Martyn Read as Giles Corey.
As a whole, Mark Babych's production starts a little too slowly in the first scene, but the pace picks up and draws you in by act two and keeps the attention until the end. This is three hours of intense drama including the interval, but the action rarely flags. While it doesn't quite reach the level of 2006's A View From The Bridge, this production is certainly much better than the Octagon's Broken Glass in 2006 and Death of a Salesman last year. Hopefully this signals a return to form for this great theatre after a few recent disappointing productions.
Reviewer: David Chadderton