The Crucible review – stylish restaging is all beauty and no bite

Arthur Miller’s play used the Salem witch trials as an allegory for McCarthy-era hysteria but it is masterful, and elastic, enough to accommodate a host of modern-day parables. That is not what we see here. Lyndsey Turner’s production keeps it in its original context and the play feels like a handsomely raised period piece.

Beautifully staged, it is an almost entirely faithful interpretation and feels safe for it. Where its world might have borne more resonances to the group-think and scapegoating that recent populist narratives have peddled, its faithfulness pushes its themes back to the past, to Puritan fundamentalism, a time of theocracy and the search for a New Jerusalem, without bringing anything substantially new or imaginative to the stage – other than its aesthetics.

But what aesthetics they are. Es Devlin’s set is a stunner, with rain weeping in between scenes, even if the set’s spare, portable lines and upturned chairs at the end feel slightly too familiar from previous productions. The backdrop occasionally lights up to feature snaps of mute action as characters speak in the foreground, and scenes are rearranged with such nimbleness that it feels like a visual trick at times, along with a gleaming hard tiled floor which feels fittingly Puritan.

In terms of the drama itself, it is difficult for a play of this calibre to go awry: the dread, suspense and horror is all in the script, from Abigail’s young, blindly destructive passion for John Proctor, to the hysteria that swarms this 17th-century Massachusetts community to bring out all its grudges and betrayals.

Still it kicks off with wobbles and appears like a play being performed by numbers at the start. Some Bostonian accents are distinctly off kilter and lines are spun lightly so that they cause ripples of laughter in the audience which defuses the sense of threat.

Erin Doherty, as Abigail, is full of urgent energy but her fearful anger seems overplayed and her character stays oddly flat: even her tender, pained private conversation with John Proctor in which she begs him to rekindle their passion, ends up sounding like an angry child’s strop without the accompanying vulnerability. Brendan Cowell, as Proctor, is a rough, gruff farmer whose core of earnestness is revealed gradually.

The cast as a whole runs on a too loud, urgent tone but this recalibrates in the second half, with better pace and intensity in exchanges between John Proctor and his wife, Elizabeth (Eileen Walsh, brilliantly balancing inner steel and nervousness). Their conversation about his past infidelity creates an emotional focus followed by the bigger courtroom drama of the trials.

Fear builds as we go along. Mary, as Abigail’s lone opponent, is played excellently by Rachelle Diedericks while Fisayo Akinade, as the Reverend John Hale, is something of a faceless accountant at first, following the Bible to the letter, and then the conscience of this play, impassioned and panicked by the fevered injustice that floods this town. Tilly Tremayne, as Rebecca Nurse, is quietly majestic too as the unbending voice of reason. The group of girls, disjointed at first, comes to function as a chilling group in court. They are dressed in pink pinafores and look emphatically like children which makes their “crying out” all the more creepy.

A single, flat musical note rumbles at the back of the drama, heightening its foreboding, and Tim Lutkin’s lighting reflects off an awning and shines across the stage like a celestial dawn on this cursed community. Ultimately, it is these polished aesthetics that stay in our mind afterwards.