"Dressing to Kill in Cumbria"
by Sheila Cornelius for remotegoat on 09/03/13

Large Print's revival of Moira Buffini's award-winning 1999 play brings a challenging work to a local audience.

Central to this curious Dark-age comedy is perilous journey through England. Five characters, in constant danger of attack by marauding Vikings, are pursued by a vengeful King.

Ymma, a French Princess, and Silence, Lord of Cumbria are newly-weds still reeling from a wedding-night surprise, accompanied by Ymma's disgruntled servant Agnes.Escorting them are Eadric, the King's former 'fixer' and Roger, a reluctant priest. Eadric is in love with Ymma, whose absence has spurred King Ethelred to action. He regrets punishing her for misdeeds by an enforced marriage and now wants her for himself. Daniel Brennan is chilling as the inreasingly power-crazed monarch.

En route from Canterbury they bypass London -'What a dump!' says Ymma - and travel to Cumbria via York, a reminder of how truly dark an age it was, without satnavs, or even proper roads. As in all the best journeys, the characters discover themselves.

Silence was the preferred feature of women in an age dominated by religion, but in this play everyone struggles to find a voice and an identity. Related themes of power, gender, religion and the right dress recur in a work with many Shakespearean echoes, including the kinship of natural and supernatural worlds and a final twist that recalls 'The Winter's Tale'.

Jonathan Bradshaw's relaxed direction in the early scenes sets a darkly humorous tone, as when the scornful, sea-sick Princess lands at Dover. 'Kent -what a dump!' is her verdict. Her comic encounter with a King who spends his days in bed, and her marriage to someone not much older than a child, precede their flight.

Thomas Gray's sound design establishes a medieval atmosphere and sets a jaunty pace for the long cart-trip that ends with the sound of martial drums. They signal a general darkening of the play when the King, who has developed a taste for torture, catches up with them.

Brigid Lohrey is a bold and forthright Ymma, although the character's dark psychology is not fully explored by the text. Lainey Shaw convinces as stalwart narrator and maidservant who finds love; Theo Maggs is funny as the hapless priest who, when asked to interpret a dream, replies, 'Dreams are not my area of expertise. I'm more of a parchment man.' Samantha Beart brings a plausible naivete to the role of Silence and stirs emotions with some lyrically descriptive lines. Patrick Neyman conveys the confusion of a man of action overcome by his feelings.

William Ingham's expert lighting is especially effective in the final snowy-forest scenes, and a brief but thrilling swordfight directed by Jonathan Leverett adds extra drama towards the end.

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