laura and suzanne

Lucy Doyle as Laura a Caroline Harker as Suzanne on the wonderful set. Pictures: Charlotte Graham

The Croft

Derby Theatre


Old houses can be strange things, some feel cold, bleak and inhospitable even on the hot, lazy days in the height of summer, others are bright, warm and welcoming, cheerful even in the dark depths of winter.

Is it just perception? The people who live there now? The reason you are there? Or is it the lives that have passed through that have left their traces behind, the loves, the births, the deaths and perhaps worse that time has left behind.

The Croft in Ali Milles debut play is such a property with a history, and a history where sadness and tension outweigh any moments of joy.

It is an isolated crofter’s cottage close to the tiny hamlet of Coillieghillie on the jagged north west coast of Scotland sitting on the Applecross peninsula opposite Skye, a crofter’s hamlet abandoned in the 1930s.

Enter Laura and her older lover Suzanne to spend time alone together. It is an unusual relationship. Laura, played by Lucy Doyle, young and single, returning to the cottage, owned by her father, where she was brought up; Suzanne, played by Caroline Harker, married – and about to get divorced – with two teenage sons not much younger than Laura, who, we are told, used to be their babysitter.

father tom

Simon Roberts as Tom trying to repair a relationship with daughter Laura

Both travel with baggage, Laura trapped by her own past and the past of the croft, Suzanne unable to completely abandon the call to be a mother, to put Laura before family.

It is a fine performance by the pair trying to come to terms with an unlikely affair in surroundings that seem to have a life of their own.

The play is billed as a thriller but perhaps ghost story would be more accurate. We have the things going bump in the night . . . and day, candles that blow out, strange noises, a generator with a mind of its own, a door which flies open and slams shut of its own accord and, of course, no mobile signal for miles.

It is the stock in trade of tales of horror and ghosts but to be fair, director Philip Franks has largely avoided turning the unearthly moments into clichés and there are some genuine moments when shivers run down the spine – and of course we have ghosts, spirits from the past, lives that have seeped into the walls of the croft.

Two other tales are intertwined with our present day lovers, one dating back to 1870 and the fag end of the Highland Clearances, a stain on Scottish history when landowners forcibly evicted crofters to clear the land for more profitable sheep farming.


A vision from the past with Gwyn Taylor as Enid

Here we find Enid, played by the remarkable Gwen Taylor, who will be 81 next month - and happy returns for that. Enid is a cantankerous old biddy, who refuses to leave the croft, despite the landowner Patrick, played by Simon Roberts, threatening to burn down the croft with her in it.

Living with her is Eilene, played again by Doyle, who had a still born baby born out of wedlock. She argues with Enid trying to get her to leave while the dead baby’s father Alec, played by Drew Cain, is pleading with Eilene to leave. Spoiler alert: It doesn’t end well.

Move on to 2007 and Drew Cain is now David who appears to be, should we say, somewhat friendly with Laura’s mother Ruth, played by Harker, who has taken a dramatic decision and then a final choice which will affect David, Laura and her husband Tom, played by Roberts again, for the rest of their lives. Its another one that does not end well.

Back to now and David and Tom have made some sort of peace, Tom, a local pastor, vicar, minister . . . we never quite find out the denomination, wants to take his daughter home, wants to reconnect, wants to rebuild a relationship that is soured, broken, difficult, full of anger and bitterness.

We get the feeling that the Laura of now, back in 2007 and as Eilene long ago in 1870, is lost, looking for love, acceptance . . . something.

Gwen Taylor gets top billing and the face on the poster but it is Doyle who holds this play together, the link between the three stories. It is her character who seems to be the receiver of all the feelings, all the history and all the pain locked in the ancient bricks and mortar, a superb performance.

Indeed, this is a play with five star acting throughout, with the changes from character to character, year to year, cleverly done.

It is a fine set from Adrian Linford beautifully lit by Chris Davey while the special effects, although simple, are effective and at times chilling.

David croft

Drew Cain as the Gillie, David

Max Pappenheim has balanced sound well and composed some mournful Celtic music with James Findlay on violin, although I suspect in this genre of music he would be seen as a fiddler rather than violinist.

It is in the plot where perhaps confusing creeps in. We never really find the real story of Enid, or the final out outcome, and perhaps the same could be said of the tale of Ruth, Tom and David. We see a snapshot two dimensional with no explanation, too much unknown.

We see the conflict in all three stories, perhaps the croft is a malevolent place, but it is only in today’s clashes that we see any detail and even then it is sketchy – Laura needing Suzanne all to herself, petulant if things don’t go entirely her way, obsessed with the past.

Suzanne out of her comfort zone, fretting about her teenage sons and, with the age difference, you suspect, almost a mother figure to Laura.

It is a bold first play, well written with some clever dialogue, chilling at times, but while the link between the now and 2007might be apparent, you feel it has more to tell, while the link to 1870 seems to be merely a snapshot of a moment in history and a small episode in the life of the croft itself. Any comparison or connection seems tenuous.

An interesting evening with fine acting, a lovely set but somehow unsatisfied with a plot that left you disappointed. To 01-02-20.

Roger Clarke


The Croft heads off on tour with a Midland return to Coventry Belgrade 15-18 April.` 

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