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The Welkin

by on 26 April 2023

Sky Lines

The Welkin

by Lucy Kirkwood

Putney Theatre Company at the Putney Arts Theatre until 29th April

Review by Eleanor Lewis

“Men are afraid that women will laugh at them, women are afraid that men will kill them”.

Margaret Atwood’s observation, made fortyish years ago, remains pin-sharp in its relevance.  The need to control women’s bodies: (USA, Roe vs Wade etc), the resentment generated by women’s (current) freedom with regard to their own sexuality (‘incels’), and the violence directed at them (Sarah Everard, Sabina Nessa and others) all represent a culture that seems still, in the main, only able to deal with women on terms that most women themselves do not, voluntarily, accept.

Set in the middle of the eighteenth Century, Lucy Kirkwood’s play The Welkin, presents a group of women brought together to pass judgement on one of their number, and poses the idea that while much has moved on, certain fundamental issues remain the same.  “Feminist drama” rightly or wrongly probably doesn’t appeal equally to all genders, so it’s vital to state that while The Welkin isn’t a comedy, it is full of humour; and Putney Theatre Company’s production, ably directed by Kim Dyas and Veronika Wilson is very engaging.

Sally Poppy, a murderess, has been sentenced to hang but will avoid the hanging and instead be deported if she proves to be pregnant as she claims to be.  Twelve local women including the midwife Lizzy Luke (an impressive, layered performance from Sarah Perkins), are gathered in one room to determine whether Sally is telling the truth.  The women are watched over by one man, Mr Coombes the local bailiff, who must not talk to them.  Sally is neither repentant nor remorseful and has no time for any of the strictures society expects her to bend to, but she’s no heroine either, being unswervingly dislikeable.  Lizzy Luke, having been brought reluctantly to the proceedings, is the only one with any will to defend her. 

The women, while deciding Sally’s fate, discuss life, death, men, marriage, sex, childbirth and menopause in graphic, gory, entertaining detail, forgetting Mr Coombes who hears it all.  Well written, well directed and well performed, these characters, which are by necessity stock characters, become fully authentic people whose lives are colourful and interesting, and all of this moves along at a healthy pace.

The strength of an ensemble piece is that it works as a whole, one weakness brings the rest down.  Putney Theatre Company’s cast have this entirely under control, every character amongst the twelve women giving a fully rounded performance.  Lois Savill’s wordless but endearing Sarah Hollis was particularly effective, but this is not to lessen the contribution of the rest of this formidably skilled cast.  In a more singular role, Lucy Mabbitt’s performance as Sally Poppy was pitched just the right side of deranged as to make her both terrifying and recognisable. 

There are similarities to both The Crucible (Arthur Miller) and Twelve Angry Men (Reginald Rose) here; the dangers of groupthink are apparent but discussion gives way to shock drama and revelations, which explode into the end of Act 1 and continue in Act 2.  The jury room becomes the arena for action, rather like Halley’s Comet, which is occasionally referred to throughout, and which had appeared from the heavens – the welkin – the year before.

Kim Dyas’ set, a spacious eighteenth Century room, on the Putney Arts Theatre’s main stage provides ample room for the women to be seen as individuals and as members of the group.  It also gives an elegant tableau element to some scenes.  Perry Savill’s marvellous props, particularly those illustrating the vast range of domestic duties women were required to carry out, enhanced the drama to great effect, (although assurances should be provided that the imaginative Graham Jones will never in the real world be involved in designing actual medical equipment).

The business of smashing the patriarchy has always had to morph into undermining the patriarchy largely because men are always going to be bigger and stronger than we are, a fact horribly illustrated towards the end of this work.  Perhaps the lesson from The Welkin is therefore to carry on undermining just make sure it’s never obvious, or perhaps it’s raise the flag and pass the ammunition, a version of something my parents’ generation used to say.  Either way, Putney Theatre Company’s production of The Welkin is the type of theatre that blurs the line between amateur and professional and is a credit to everyone involved.  It is a skilled, very entertaining achievement, well worth seeing.

Eleanor Lewis, April 2023

Photography by Steve Lippitt

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