"Promising, but lacking in tension"
by Alexandra Roumbas Goldstein for remotegoat on 12/02/08

A cast of just three actors is needed for David Harrower's oppressive play dealing with sexual tensions and social upheaval in pre-industrial Scotland.

A recently married (and unnamed) young woman is happy in her simple life with "Pony" William, the village ploughman, even though he ignores her when the mares need tending to. An encounter with the distant and much feared miller, Gilbert Horn, forces her to address her understanding of the world, and the problems in her marriage that she was barely aware existed.

Knives in Hens ought to be a tense, taut, psychological drama and with a talented cast and studio theatre setting the promise of a claustrophobic, gripping theatrical event was there. Sadly there was a distinct lack of atmosphere that lead more than one member of the audience (of twelve) to drop off during the performance.

Sarah Hannah, as the Young Woman, delivered a thoughtful and vibrant performance, with the character's naivety rendered sympathetically; she was not educated, but she was no country bumpkin. Her rough and earthy husband with all his rumoured passions was beautifully portrayed in a fearlessly confident performance from Ryan Hurst. Julian Casey's Gilbert Horn, whilst being the most interesting character of all, didn't quite stand up to the other two, being slightly more mannered and less nuanced, whilst still creating a reasonable amount of tension in scenes with Hannah.

Unfortunately, that didn't take away from the fact that moments that should be shocking are brushed off without a second thought. Sudden swearing, a sudden switch from talking about the weather to a sexual matter - these ought to be jarring but instead give the impression of a bunch of cheeky children trying to impress us with their sexual vocabulary without really understanding the meaning of what they're saying. The fact that, occasionally, there was some garbled delivery and wobbly accents didn't help.

One key scene in particular, the moment that defines the latter part of the play, should be a frightening, gruesome and chillingly cold moment. Instead, because there has been a certain lack of tension between the married couple, it's inexplicably drastic. Even given the historical setting, the motives are unclear and unnecessarily dramatic.

The script is also a bit vague, raising issues but failing to really explore them adequately. No neat resolution is delivered, nor required; however, neither are questions properly raised, nor real sympathy or empathy with the concerns of the protagonists. Knives in Hens veers between sexual tensions and religious epiphanies, uncertain how to bring the two together except in a letter written by one character which should bring the issues to a head but mostly just confuses them further.

Unable to decide whether it is a drama or a melodrama, Knives in Hens is bristling with potential but somehow fails to deliver in full. The cast certainly deserve to go on to bigger and better things. The direction from Stuart Watson was also fluid, with a simple, effectively used set and a refreshing lack of overcomplicated lighting or music cues.

The Questors Theatre has a knack for reviving less-performed plays and attracting talented casts, and in this it deserves to be supported; I look forward to better examples of the kind of quality I have seen them produce in the past.

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