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Review: The Welkin

A deceptively funny tale of female power and powerlessness


For this week only, National Theatre’s The Welkin has come to the Cambridge stage. Directed by Mercy Brewer and Fiona Popplewell, this production promises a thorough depiction of the female experience in the past, present and future. Set in 1759, The Welkin explores the story of Sally Poppy – a convicted murderer who claims to be pregnant in order to avoid the death sentence – and a jury of twelve women tasked with determining if she is telling the truth.

Twelve women provided this production with a wonderful ensemble cast (Image credit: Paul Ashley)

The production establishes a professional and cohesive air from the outset with a neatly-staged opening montage featuring the key female characters in the play fulfilling their domestic duties for the day, highlighting both the historical setting and the female-centred focus of the narrative. It quickly becomes evident that this is a character-driven story, with the use of subtle lighting and minimal sound design created by Edward De’Ath and Sarah George, respectively, bolstering the simple domestic dialogue which dominates the play.

The heavy reliance on dialogue, as well as the hard work of costume designer Emily Rosenberg, allows for the directors’ and actors’ excellent characterisation to really shine through, laying the fundamental groundwork for the narrative. The success of this production’s characterisation is made abundantly clear with the introduction of the all-female jury, each member of which presents themselves with a brief comedic speech allowing for a glimpse into their lives, each of which represents a different aspect of the female experience.

Intense emotional moments are abundant in this production (Image credit: Paul Ashley)

The play’s focus on characterisation really allows the cast’s strengths to shine through, with leads Harriet Haylock (Sally Poppy) and Eliza Harrison (Elizabeth Luke) in particular providing the audience with a diverse emotional portrayal and a fantastic amount of chemistry with one another. They are also aided significantly by a tightly-knit supporting cast, including Lizzy Riley as Kitty Givens and Dominika Wiatrowska as Hannah Rusted, who exemplify the comedic emphasis of the play whilst also bouncing off of each other brilliantly.

Haylock’s thoroughly emotional portrayal is what drove the performance (Image credit: Paul Ashley)

What this production boasts in terms of characterisation, it largely matches in terms of pacing. For a two and a half hour production, the production team does a reasonably good job of keeping an even pace throughout by balancing the use of calm and even dialogue with the build-up of tensions and energy at the end of each act, punctuating the dramatic conclusions with audio-visual montages exploring women’s contributions to and role in society.

However, at certain points the tone of the play does feel slightly jarring, with occasional lapses in pacing arising from the difficulties of balancing the heavy topics and comedic aspects of the script. Nevertheless, The Welkin is ultimately hugely successful in laying out its portrayal of the female experience, using a cyclical structure and closing montage to emphasise the relevance of the themes it explores to not only past, but also present and future societies.

Whilst dealing with considerably heavy topics such as murder, infidelity, and sexual assault, this production doesn’t fail to lend a much-needed light-hearted air to not only keep the audience interested, but laughing all the way through.

4/5

The Welkin is showing at the ADC Theatre from 24th to the 28th October at 7.45pm, with an additional matinee on 28th October. Get your tickets here!