Adapted from Robin Redbreast by John Griffith Bowen, co-created by Sarah Frankcom, Maxine Peake and Imogen Knight, writer Daisy Johnson
Factory International
Aviva Studios

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Tyler Cameron and Maxine Peake Credit: Tristram Kenton
Maxine Peake, Tyler Cameron and company Credit: Tristram Kenton
Maxine Peake and Tyler Cameron Credit: Tristram Kenton
Maxine Peake Credit: Tristram Kenton
Maxine Peake, Tyler Cameron and company Credit: Tristram Kenton
Maxine Peake Credit: Tristram Kenton

For their latest in a long line of collaborations, director Sarah Frankcom and performer Maxine Peake, this time with Imogen Knight, have arranged Aviva's North Warehouse to a familiar shape: in-the-round (Frankcom was Artistic Director of the Royal Exchange Theatre and Peake was in several of her productions there). The show is an adaptation of John Bowen's Play For Today from 1970 Robin Redbreast, a folk horror play said to be a precursor to The Wicker Man, but this new version is certainly not a tense thriller with a clear linear narrative, which you might expect from the publicity information.

The audience are mostly sat on rough, creaky, backless benches surrounding the wooden frame of a house. Maya Jones in the programme likens the Norah played here by Peake with Nora in Ibsen's A Doll's House, so it could suggest that titular children's toy, or perhaps the wooden birdcages seen by Norah in the village, although Torvald also has bird-like pet names for his wife in Ibsen's play.

For the first ten minutes, Norah is silently preparing a roast chicken dinner in her cottage, but the audience all wear headphones through which Peake's voice speaks her thoughts, mixed with sound effects and occasionally other voices, filling in some of her back-story. It is also mixed with audio description, even though this wasn't billed as an audio described performance, which distracts from the mood set by Peake, especially as it doesn't always match what we see, and being warned "stand by for a very loud bang" rather spoils the effect.

Through the headphones, Norah's fractured narrative, though not always easy to follow, brings in some elements of the story from Bowen's original, including an infestation of mice at this rural cottage to which she moved after splitting up from someone when he insisted that he wanted children but she didn't—and he also referred to her writing (she is a TV script editor) as "tinkering". She has forsworn relationships and intends to write here, but then she mentions a "beautiful man" (Tyler Cameron) who tries to get her to dance, and we see him, topless and swinging an axe; she says the sinister "woman who cleans" told her that this is her son, Robin. It seems the dinner she is making is for him, but it isn't the Sunday roast they ending up having on the kitchen table.

Then the house flies up, and its contents are gradually deconstructed by the uniformed brass band who introduced the show, then we seem to see the dance that Norah described earlier, which ends with Norah and 'Robin' together as rain falls on the stage. Norah, alone, talks emotionally about smelling afterbirth, having contractions and being tied to the bed while someone shouts "stop her from hurting the baby."

The band return but in street clothes, helping Norah to cover the wet ground then sitting listening to her speaking through a handheld mic, as though at a support group, of her experiences of getting pregnant, deciding against an abortion but then something going seriously wrong. Then she talks about her friend who was having chemo and her young son.

While the original concluded—this isn't really a spoiler as the BBC wiped the original videotapes, though a black and white 16mm print survives—with an odd pagan ritual in which the villagers imply that 'Robin' had been sacrificed and they offer to raise the child with which she is now pregnant to become the next 'Robin', this part isn't really told in the show. However, the themes of pregnancy and fertility and controlling women's bodies are amplified, from Norah's partner trying to insist she has a child, to the angry anti-abortion protester who confronts her outside the clinic, to her terrible experiences in hospital while losing her baby, to helping raise a sick friend's son.

It's all very impressionistic, leaving the audience to piece it together rather than setting it all in a clear narrative, and all the real action of the story is described rather than shown, which makes some parts involving multiple characters a bit confusing. Using headphones didn't seem to add anything at all, feeling like more of a gimmick, and I found the music and birdsong combined with Peake's whispered tones more relaxing than sinister.

However the performance as a whole has a strong message, with an impressively committed performance from Peake at the heart of it. It's a long way from the folk horror genre of its source, but the stories it does tell are chilling in their own way, and the strangeness of the form of the show does serve to emphasise that.

Reviewer: David Chadderton

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