Maxine Peake commands a strong cast in a shouty courtroom drama which is indecisive about what it wants to be – ★★★
Both the 12 women at the heart of Lucy Kirkwood’s new play and the audience have a decision to make when it comes to The Welkin. The group must decide if a murderer is pregnant (thus delaying her hanging), and viewers must consider – as with any play which is almost three hours in length – if the running time is worth it.
Opening with a cacophonous snapshot of the women at home (another stunning design by Bunny Christie) before blitzing through four of the six chapters in rapid succession, James Macdonald’s direction applies the urgency expected from a legal drama. Yet when the women are locked in a room and forced to decide, the pace which came from quick scene changes dissipates, and instead it is Maxine Peake (Black Mirror and Funny Cow) who commands the stage.
The actress stars as midwife Lizzy Luke, who soon becomes the alpha female in the group in 1750s rural Suffolk. They must make a unanimous verdict on the fate Sally (The Doctor‘s Ria Zmitrowicz, who is joyfully riotous and outspoken) must face. With a no-nonsense approach and a focus on the matter in hand, her character isn’t much of a driving force when things descend into a shouting match (a clash of rural Suffolk accents being particularly difficult for a deaf critic to follow), with personal grievances being revealed. Naturally, there are parallels with courtroom drama 12 Angry Men, as Kirkwood herself acknowledges, but this is 12 Angry Men with a slight feminist twist – and a lot of loud emotion.
In turn, each character delivers their own exposition, with National regular Cecilia Noble (Downstate and Faith, Hope and Charity) and Haydn Gwynne (Billy Elliot and Drop the Dead Donkey) amongst those completing the cast. Thick accents likely had some part to play in a lack of interest in the many monologues, but it soon became more intriguing to know how they would vote, rather than how their decisions are informed.
After all, bias, prejudice, peer pressure and close scrutiny of the truth are not new concepts in a jury drama like The Welkin. It’s unique framing around a different kind of trial is the most interesting, along with its feminist undertones. It triumphs with its criticism of male-led justice, with lines like “Nobody blames God when there’s a woman can be blamed instead” and the women’s strict instructions to clerk Mr Coombes (Philip McGinley).
It is therefore unfortunate that this idea culminates in a collection of final scenes which – although some of the play’s most intense moments and likely intentional – make what is a promising premise and endeavour rather pointless.
The Welkin is now playing at the Lyttelton Theatre until 23 May. It will be broadcast live in cinemas as part of NT Live on 21 May.
Disclaimers: I was invited to watch The Welkin for free in exchange for a review of the performance. I did not receive payment for this review. All opinions stated are honest and my own.
As a mildly deaf theatre critic, I occasionally encounter difficulties when following a production. These usually occur when placed in higher up seats in the theatre, and I try to obtain the appropriate hearing technology available to rectify this. For this performance, I was situated in the stalls with the theatre’s smart captioning glasses being unavailable. I struggled to hear and understand aspects of the play, and this has been reflected in the review.