You’ve probably heard of the Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins: whether through the 1968 Vincent Price film, the song by heavy metal band Saxon, or as a former ranking officer of the Witchfinder Army in Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens. But have you heard of his sister, Alice? Admittedly, details of the Hopkins family tree are slightly hazy, so this is where Beth Underdown comes in – her debut novel The Witchfinder’s Sister gives a voice to a possible sister of Matthew Hopkins, and interrogates the practice of witch-hunts in the 1640s. This has now been adapted for the stage by Vickie Donoghue, and is currently in the middle of a run at Queens Theatre Hornchurch.
Alice arrives back in Manningtree, Essex, widowed and pregnant; she has been forced to turn to her brother for support as her precarious life in London has come crashing down around her. She arrives to a changed town, however, as her brother is now mixing with polite society and “scribing” for them – not to mention the highly secretive household he is keeping, led by the intimidating Mary Phillips. After this rocky start, she is further unnerved after talking to her late mother’s former servant, Bridget; suspicion & paranoia have been spreading through the town, and women have been rounded up for investigation of alleged witchcraft. But how is Matthew involved? And can Alice find a way to stop it?
Set almost 400 years in the past, the core themes of this story could apply to any aspect of female life in the 21st century. Even following a period of 28 weeks in which 81 women were killed, with male suspects in every case, women still aren’t being listened to (extra police presence will not make us feel safer) and will routinely get shut down in debates with men for being hysterical or too emotional, even for calmly stating reasonable arguments. Alice is continually treated in this manner by both Matthew and Mary, especially as she digs deeper into what’s been happening in her absence.
This kind of behaviour and response is so deeply ingrained in us all, that the fact that there is only one man in a cast of six makes no difference – you still keenly feel the weight of male power, and the feeling of helplessness that it instils in women. Almost as frightening is seeing women allying themselves with men like this; Mary is the anti-suffrage, Trump-supporting female who either doesn’t understand or doesn’t care about the damage she’s inflicting on her fellow women by enabling men in power.
The show itself has an engaging and gripping story, which is rooted in reason but by the end finds itself completely taken over by the supernatural. Its running time of around two hours (plus an interval) is just enough to allow for detail & exposition, whilst maintaining a decent pace (without scenes feeling at all rushed). Jonnie Riordan’s direction & choreography is superb, and the stagecraft is second-to-none; there are illusions & frights reminiscent of The Woman in Black, relying on stage trickery and clever lighting (Matt Haskins) to bring the shocks. The set design by Libby Watson cleverly incorporates a lot of red ducking stool-like chairs, and neatly brings doors in & out of door frames when required – the handheld lamps also have practical benefits whilst adding to the atmosphere. What strikes you the most, however, is Owen Crouch’s sound design. It is absolutely phenomenal, enveloping you in the story with surround sound; the combination of whispered names of accused witches, loud strikes, and background effects & music really elevates the piece to a new, chilling level.
There are excellent performances from the whole cast, in particular George Kemp as the unflinching & single-minded Matthew, Anne Odeke’s independent (but surprisingly naïve) Rebecca, and Lily Knight’s portrayal of Alice – full of hope, passion & determination. All in all, a disquieting show that shines a light on a truly terrifying period in history – a story that feels startlingly relevant today.
My verdict? A chilling show that links the 17th and 21st centuries in a truly terrifying way – atmospheric sound design takes the production to a whole new level.
The Witchfinder’s Sister runs at Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch until 30 October 2021, with a combination of socially distanced and full capacity performances. Tickets are available online or from the box office.