Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings


The ghastly Abigail Williams (Safia Lamrani) invents the semblance of evil powers in court and seeks to destroy the innocent people of Salem. Pictures: Richard Smith

The Crucible

The Loft Theatre, Leamington


Arthur Miller’s third acknowledged masterpiece, The Crucible, is an evocation of the witch hunt and bitter trials that swept Massachusetts in the 1690. There was little mercy shown here. Numerous individuals, young and old, were hanged on the basis of mere whispering, suspicion or malicious evidence.

But Miller had another witch hunt in mind -1952, the year The Crucible was staged, was the time when the McCarthy hearings were approaching their most virulent.

There too, there was a rush to judgment. Homosexuals fell under suspicion; freedom of the press was hanging by a thread. The stage and film industry were scrutinised for evidence of anti-state activities, in a way that could itself be deemed Stalinist – yet even to whisper the word Communism hazarded a long prison sentence.

And so it goes on. But Miller’s play, by way of its historical distancing, was able to avoid, to a degree, such venom. It reevokes one of the cruellest stories imaginable, in that its victims – vulnerable farming folk, hard labouring adults, and hyperactive teenagers – are honest, decent and essentially innocent types who are labelled and besmirched by an intrusive state administration.

The church, in the form of the obnoxious Revd. Samuel Parris (Mark Crossley), uses the accusations as a means of magnifying its already overweening power and terrifying its flock into submission. 

In short, they have little hope of escaping the rope of the law. But one of the best performances here, among several, was Robert Lowe as Deputy Governor Danforth. He brought to his task the objectivity of a decent lawyer.

Danforth is often perceived as a bullying legal crook, a state stooge, an unrelenting villain from the outset; but here Lowe, in a beautifully spoken and strikingly level-headed performance, showed an initial tendency to be even-handed.  


Powers arraigned against - Robert Lowe (seated) as Deputy Governor Danforth with (left) Mark Crossley as the Reverend Samuel Parris and right) Martin Kinoulty as Judge John Hathorne

He begins, as it were, as a counsel not for the prosecution, but for the defence He declines to judge, but seeks the facts. And he openly urges the victims not to become such: he offers them ways out.

Gradually, even Danforth’s temper becomes frayed. His attitude changes. Judge Hathorne Martin Kinoulty), a little more hotheaded, feels the same dilemma; but he is quicker to reach for a judgment.

It is this fraying of both their tempers that leads them into what turns out a mighty travesty of justice on the doomed people of Salem. Danforth is, in the end, merciless: ‘I would hang ten thousand that dared to rise against the law’. But it is Lowe’s earlier caution and, surprisingly, humanity, which renders the court scenes – occupying almost half the play – a main highlight of David Fletcher and Gordon Vallins’s searing Loft production.

The crisis stems from several sources: the suspicions surrounding the slave girl Tituba (Nelda Pereira), whose mere colour casts her into question, but who practises what some might feel suspiciously akin to witchcraft; and whose activities then call further into question the dancing and cavorting of the girls in the woods: are they merely indulging in harmless fun and high jinks, or is there something more sinister about it all?

Towards the end, it is the main girl, the sinister, inventive Abigail (Safia Lamrani), who by faking a fit in court not only brings suspicion on the entire bevy of girls, and dooms them all, but above, twists the story so as to enfold the most innocent of all, John Proctor, who is fighting his own battles in terms of his having had an affair with Abigail, and whose guilt about adultery, admitted to his loyal wife Elizabeth, leads him to acquiesce in his own death, for no real reason. By accepting the brutality of the state, and yielding, he does more than anyone to call into question the validity of the entire persecution process.


Threatened by John Proctor (Craig Shelton) young Mary Warren (Collette Marie) seeks to divert blame on to John's longsuffering wife Elizabeth (Elizabeth Morris)

If the heart of this graphic production lay in the lead roles, it is well worth mentioning some less central, but beautifully played. Charlotte Froud as the splendidly spoken, venomous Ann Puttnam, aching to lay the blame, unashamedly belligerent and determined to voice her prejudices whomever they might harm, was the first to raise the temperature: she brought a taste of things to come, and the nicely snide way she played Ann was like a stylish vignette.

You might have thought her husband Thomas, providing something of a balance, would have brought some level-headedness to this exchange; but no, Mark Roberts’ Puttnam, possibly wife-dominated yet a strong presence too, produced his own kind of angry assertiveness. Both the couple showed real insight in their moves: well thought out, finely shaped, and ultimately disturbing.  

Possibly the pontificating Puttnams, quite fiercely and censoriously painted by Miller, have a point, in that they anticipate what may emerge from all this. But they do nothing to help their fellow villagers out of danger. As far as they are concerned, it’s everyone out for himself. They give nothing, and their snarling resentment contributes to others’ death.

Rebecca Nurse (Glynis Fletcher), who gets enmeshed quite cruelly in the dangerous shenanigans of the girls’ antics, produced a delightful, profoundly touching performance; with Jeremy Heynes as her solicitous elderly husband, Fletcher found in Rebecca a poignancy, and a kind of abject, resigned wisdom, unique in this cast. Bryan Ferriman (old Giles Corey, a vital and wholly believable performance), puzzled by the emerging state of affairs but beetling around, cutting a most amiable figure, not over intelligent perhaps, but with his own special kind of earthy nobility, a quiet, homespun experience, and increasingly conscious of the urgency and extent of the danger, struggles to put a brake on this madness, and becomes undeservedly embroiled in it. Giles strives to find a way through this unjustified crisis, only to fall victim to it.


To hell with all your lies. Craig Shelton (John Proctor) inveighs against the odious Revd. Samuel Parris (Mark Crossley)

Mark Crossley shows us the mean side of Rev. Parris almost from the start. His ‘no smoke without fire’ approach leads him within just a few scenes to become a kind of avenging angel. His prime concern is to fill the pews each Sunday: but he will stop at nothing to do so.

Endlessly fretting, increasingly gleeful at the prospect of an evolving crisis which he relishes, his hands endlessly pointing and jabbing, or shrouding his face in an obnoxious show of fake piety, he is a nasty piece of work.

Crossley plays him as edgy, nervy or even neurotic, willing to sacrifice anything to stay on the right side himself; one who sees himself as judge and jury, until Danforth, exasperated, is forced continually to shut him up.

His sermons are riddled with castigation and censure, like the most heated outpourings of John Knox. He epitomises the arrogance of the church -‘Your justice would freeze beer’, but also the way a single individual can twist its teachings to exorcise anyone who stands up to a given set of norms. There are Parrises in our world today.

As so often in Miller, as with (e.g.) the verbal tussles in All My Sons, which the Loft staged to notable effect recently, it is often the two-handers, the combative exchanges between two major characters, which bring to the fore the tensions that underlie the play and enable the real moral conflicts, as opposed to the invented ones, to surface.

Thus. among the best directed passages – partly because the pacing was so brilliantly achieved - is the early exchange between Proctor and Abigail, in which the nightmarish consequences of sexual dalliance, let alone with what would today be classed as a minor, are batted out.

She (Lamrani, immensely forceful and vengeful) believes her rights exceed all others; never mind John’s loyal wife Ann; from now on it is not just a question of whether she will avenge herself on Proctor, just a question of when, and how best to stick the knife in.

Craig Shelton gave a giant of a performance as Proctor, whose sense of decency and self-admitted guilt will ultimately cost him his life. He has erred once. Otherwise he is a model of a man: beefy, hard-working, loyal, a strong example to others (‘I’d forgotten how strong you are’). Elizabeth his wife (the splendid Elizabeth Morris) plays an immensely powerful scene opposite Shelton.

She seeks the truth, but not to condemn him: only that truth must be shared between man and wife, for that is what can unravel a marriage. Her innocence, naivety perhaps, is only evidenced by her acceptance of the fatal puppet from the dangerous young Mary Warren.

The other husband-and-wife scene which made such an impression was where Danforth makes the two face back to back as he seeks to prise out the truth about Abigail. The tension was palpable: for Proctor, the pain of guilt; for his wife, the pain of permitting that which should remain secret, within the sanctuary of the marriage, however flawed, to become public (‘She thinks to kill me, and take my place’): like announcing what is private on Facebook.      


Near the end. Craig Shelton as John and Eizabeth Morris as Elizabeth Proctor, haunted by the violence of a cruel and destructive law

Collette Marie, precisely because young and inexperienced, made of the youngster Mary Warren a highly believable figure If Abigail is the plotter, the one who will go to any lengths to achieve her grisly ends, Mary, although 18, is naïve, lacking in any real understanding of what is occurring around her, and the more dangerous because of her seeming innocence. She has a substantial soliloquy after handing over the needle-pricked puppet, and the deftness and sophistication of that speech boded well for any future parts. 

If Shelton’s magnificent, and deeply sympathetic, John Proctor – and Lowe’s Danforth – carried off the laurels, there was a third figure who proved crucial at the unfolding anxieties of Salem in 1692, there was a third character who seemed to me to excel. This was Dave Crossfield as the Rev John Hale. Where Parris emerges as the most appalling ‘Hang ’em high’, vengeance-seeking monster, Hale, is summoned to make examination in the initial stages. Hale more than anyone strives to bring some humanity into the enquiries. He does not leap to conclusions; he is not (apart from briefly at the start) judgmental. He is a force for the good. He does not hide behind his cleric’s cloth.

Nor is he afraid to challenge Danforth as the proceedings unfold. Crossfield played Trofimov in the Loft’s recent Cherry Orchard, and in some respects the characteristics of the eternal student rubbed off onto Hale.

His empathy, scrupulous honesty, aversion to lies, and dedication to the search for the truth and suppress malpractice seemed to me to add a great deal to the effectiveness of the play. Often he appeared in group blockings, which I thought the directors managed with great shrewdness: the groupings were not simplistic, but very finely manipulated.

Add to all of this the absolutely splendid, utterly consistent costumes (Helen Brady and Helen Jellicoe), and it’s not surprising at the Loft that Miller’s sharp-edged Crucible emerged as a handsome and memorable staging all round, To 18-05-19.

Roderic Dunnett


Home Reviews A-Z Reviews by affiliate