THEATRE REVIEW: The Welkin starring Maxine Peake, Cecilia Noble, Haydn Gwynne and Ria Zmitrowicz


WHERE? Lyttelton Theatre, National RUNTIME: 170 minutes (including a 20-minute interval)

WHEN? 18/1/20, press night 22/1, runs to 23/5/20

We’re in rural Suffolk in 1759 where convicted murderer Sally Poppy claims to be pregnant and 12 women must assess whether she is, which would save her from execution.

  • Read on for reasons including how this cast has Olivier, BAFTA and Tony award nominations between them

The word ‘welkin’ is derived from the Old English word ‘wolcen’ meaning cloud and the predominantly female cast here is anticipating the arrival of Halley’s Comet when a child in their village dies.

Ria Zmitrowicz has caught our eye previously in two productions at the Almeida (Three Sisters and The Doctor) and she has the best role of Poppy here who deserts her husband when she meets a mysterious stranger who may or may not have lead her astray.

Maxine Peake plays the kind midwife Lizzy Luke who has a sense of social justice and is keen for the jury of matrons’ rules to be observed particularly around the lack of influence of men who she sees as administering a system that is unfair, obsessed with class and anti-women.

The set-up means most of the action takes place in a single room as the jury interrogate Poppy and, because her ‘pregnancy’ is yet to be visible, attempt to extract milk from her as they try to work out whether she is telling them the truth.

Playwright Lucy Kirkwood (Mosquitoes at the Dorfman) makes the most of the drama of the jury room and particularly well drawn are Haydn Gwynne’s (The Threepenny Opera at the National) haughty out-of-towner and Cecilia Noble’s (Nine Night at Trafalgar Studios) subservient Emma Jenkins.

The supporting cast has a number of Olivier, BAFTA and Tony award nominations between them and includes fine turns from actresses including June Watson (Escaped Alone, Royal Court) and a memorable Wendy Kweh who is struggling to conceive and is especially affected by the situation she finds herself in.

The brief appearance by a rather too pleased with himself doctor played by Laurence Ubong Williams is a comic highlight and the strength of the predominantly female cast shows real depth to even the more minor of characters.

However, at 150 minutes (with an interval) it did feel a little long and the twists didn’t seem especially surprising to us although the second half is far more action-packed than the rather pedestrian opener.

Do go and see this if you want to see an accomplished predominantly female cast bring out the best from an original play which examines an interesting element of our past and reflect that there are many things about which men simply do not know best.

  • Picture via Facebook courtesy National Theatre. Tickets
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