Review by Daz Gale
There's something strange going on at the Almeida theatre. Always known for their high quality productions, lately they've been killing it with recent productions Patriots and A Streetcar Named Desire both about to enjoy West End transfers. It's almost like they made a deal with the devil. Either that or they just know how to put on a ridiculously good show. Hoping to follow in their footsteps is latest offering Women, Beware The Devil. But would this take us to Heaven or Hell?
Written by The Sunday Times Playwriting Award-winner Lulu Raczka, Women, Beware The Devil is set in the 17th Century as Lady Elizabeth desperately tries to protect her family’s legacy and their ancestral home. As it comes under threat, she elicits the help of one of her servants suspected of witchcraft. What transpires is a battle for power not just between good and evil but between all of the women of the house, and of course, the devil.
This might not sound like the cheeriest of shows but its tone is where Women, Beware The Devil sets its first surprise. It is wickedly funny. From its opening moments where the Devil in the present day chats to the audience about modern day evil referencing strikes and Government implosion, he has you under his spell. What follows throughout the course of the play is a tonally complex play that has some serious themes while being played out completely tongue in cheek, breaking the fourth wall as needed and almost descending into farcical quality during certain sequences involving the brilliantly immature Edward (Leo Bill).
The writing is among the greatest elements to Women, Beware The Devil. The story in itself is constantly captivating, always ensuring you are gripped at what is about to happen as power changes hands throughout, all the while keeping you roaring with laughter and smiling at the absurdity of certain parts of it. Great dialogue and well written characters made this a pleasure to watch.
Rupert Goold’s direction highlights the intensities and complexities of the characters and the situations they find themselves in, making full use of the space. Actors directing their attention to the audience mid-scene before seamlessly returning to their co-stars may seem jarring in the hands of others but here it’s done mostly to great effect, with perhaps a confusing and understated end to act one the only exception, diminishing what should have been a powerful moment.
The set design from Miriam Buether is exquisite to look at. Laid out almost like an optical illusion, it drew gasps the moment the curtain came out to reveal a vast antique looking space which perfectly played host to the action infolding. Fantastic lighting design from Tim Lutkin set the scene beautifully, particularly in the darker moments in the story, with an ominous soundtrack from Adam Cork (also responsible for composition in a surprising musical moment) creating a truly atmospheric setting.
Among the cast of wonderful performers on stage are some real standouts. Lydia Leonard is captivating as the villainous Elizabeth, playing up to the nature of a character the audience loved to hate. Ioanna Kimbook gives a versatile performance as Katherine culminating in a complete change of character in the plays later moments complete with an uncomfortably painful breakdown that was a testament to her outstanding acting.
Playing The Devil himself can’t be the easiest of asks but Nathan Armarkwei-Laryea does it with glee. From the moment he opened the play flirting with the audience to every time he appeared on stage in a number of supporting roles, he was always a joy to watch. Leo Bill was utterly scene-stealing as the childish and problematic Edward giving an over the top performance that, at times, felt like he was in a completely differently play than everyone else. However, this bold choice worked and his comical nature provided light relief among the darker tones on offer.
The standout performance of Women, Beware The Devil undoubtedly belongs to Alison Oliver as Agnes. Having the most to do in terms of character development, she is a completely different person at the end of the play than she was where it started. However, Alison deals with this journey admirably in an effortlessly natural progression. Blurring the lines between good and evil, she is utterly bewitching in a performance that was far clearer in terms of how good it was.
It's safe to say Women, Beware The Devil isn’t the show I thought it was going to be. It was so much more than that. Laughing at a show with these themes was not what I thought I’d be doing on a Wednesday night, but that is where this show excels. Having some very conflicting tones and themes but miraculously blending them together is what this show does exceptionally well. It’s top class writing and direction is joined by a truly stellar cast in a production that is Devilishly good. It really is one Hell of a show.
Women, Beware The Devil plays at the Almeida Theatre until 25th March. Tickets from almeida.co.uk
Photos by Marc Brenner