The Taxidermist’s Daughter – Chichester – review

Kate Mosse’s first play provides a dramatic opening to new Chichester season

★★★

A production photo from The Taxidermist's Daughter by Kate Mosse taken on 8th April 2022 at Chichetser Festival Theatre
The Taxidermist’s Daughter at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo: Ellie Kurttz

The opening of this year’s Chichester Festival Theatre season could not be more dramatic. I’ve rarely felt such goosebumps as when the lights went up on The Taxidermist’s Daughter began: an initial jump at the loud discordant sound and disturbing lighting, churchgoers frightened by hanging dead crows, a chilling recitation of Who Killed Cock Robin.

This play has Chichester running in its veins. It is written by Chichester resident and Festival Theatre stalwart Kate Mosse, and set in nearby Fishbourne. I don’t know how much of the credit goes to Kate Mosse and how much to director Roisin McBrinn, but this is a play designed for the Festival Theatre space and the production works perfectly there.

Unfortunately, the gothic horror story doesn’t quite live up to the production. The evocation of a bygone time and place, and the sense of the past contained in the present are excellent. However, Kate Mosse has made the decision to turn her original mystery story into a revenge play while retaining a question mark over the whys and wherefores of what’s going on. The belated explanation means that I for one found it hard to understand or sympathise with the revenge that a mystery woman is carrying out.

The play lacks the tension of the best thrillers: the killing spree doesn’t even begin until the end of act one. And the mystery doesn’t grip enough to justify the delay, despite raising many questions:  who are the women who have escaped from the local asylum, who has hung dead crows in the church, what happened all those years ago, why are people being killed, are these connected? Spoiler alert- yes they are!

Connie Gifford can’t remember the details of a traumatic event in her childhood.  She is trying to continue her drunken father’s tottering taxidermy business and is troubled by both the past and present. Daisy Prosper conveys well her sweet disposition and vulnerability.

We eventually learn that a group of leading men from the community committed crimes and, because of their position in society and because the crimes were against women, they have got away with it. ‘The men charged to protect us are the ones we must fear the most.’

The message is perennial. Inevitably we will think that not enough has changed a hundred years on, when powerful men like Jimmy Savile and Jeffrey Epstein get away with crimes against women and girls for years. But, for audiences of revenge fiction, taking the law into one’s own hands is a cathartic response to the failures of the system.

The stars of the show are the creative team

The Taxidermist’s Daughter is not as spooky as The Woman In Black nor as bloody and grand guignol as the recent production of The Lieutenant Of Inishmore which starred Aidan Turner. Nevertheless, it does a decent job in both those genres.

In this, the play is helped enormously by the creative team, who are the real stars of the show. Sinead Diskin’s frightening music and sound and the stark, flashing lighting designed by Prema Mehta. Paul Wills’ set design keeps the stage bare. Sinister black-and-white projections proliferate- on the back wall, the floor and on hanging screens. These often take the form of extraordinary videos by Andrzej Goulding, which show us fragments of faces, dark foliage, water- oh yes, the water. I’ve seen a lot of water on this stage over the years but this projection of splashing water onto the floor was more convincing than any real water I’ve seen.

And water is significant because Fishbourne is marshland and it’s 1912, the year of the great flood, and the action takes place as the deluge begins. So the mystery woman may be seen as washing out evil from the community.

The production uses every square inch of the stage. There are entrances from all directions, and pieces of set- often stuffed birds in display cabinets- rise from a multitude of holes in the floor. It does what theatre does best: it inspires the imagination. In fact, the scariest moment is probably when we finally see the crime, and that’s because we don’t actually see it, but are given all the information we need to imagine it.

Production photo of Pearl Chandra in The Taxisermist's Daughter by Kate Miosse at Chichester festival Theatre in 2022
Pearl Chandra in The Taxidermist’s Daughter. Photo: Ellie Kurttz

Many of the characters are sketched rather than detailed portraits. Pearl Chandra as the mystery murderer is passionate and energetic without going over the top.  Forbes Masson does well as Connie’s father Crowley Gifford, a man plagued with guilt about what happened in his past, who is now barely holding himself together.

We also meet a nice man: Harry, a gentle young artist, played by Taheen Modak. Although the play focuses on the position of women in early 20th ventury society, men too had to know their place, so it’s good to see at least one young man whois nice and gentle and breaks free from the chains of a professional career to become an artist. It’s not overtly stated in the play but it’s hard not to remember that this young man is only a couple of years away from being sent to the slaughter of the first world war, a victim of powerful old men, in a war that will change the village more than the flood.

But maybe that’s putting too much weight on what is in the end an enjoyable gothic horror story in a glorious production.

The Taxidermist’s Daughter can be seen at Chichester Festival Theatre until 30 April 2022. Click here for tickets and information.

The reviewer was given a press ticket by the producers.

Click here to watch this review on the One Minute Theatre Reviews YouTube channnel

 

Hymn starring Adrian Lester – review

Adrian Lester & Danny Sapani give an acting masterclass

★★★★★

Production photo from Hymn at The Almeida Theatre in London featuring Danny Sapani and Adrian Lester
Danny Sapani & Adrian Lester in Hymn. Photo: Marc Brenner

Hymn, although it’s not spelled ‘him’, is a play about two men, two sons, and two brothers as it turns out. A bare stage with two actors provide possibly the best piece of streamed theatre I’ve seen.

It begins with a funeral. Gil, played by Adrian Lester, gives a eulogy to his late father, his hero. Now 50, he is the youngest child of four, the only boy, in the shadow of his older sisters and in awe of his late father. In the course of the play, we learn that his life has been shackled by following in his father’s footsteps as a businessman rather than being comfortable with being the kind but naive man he clearly is. And it seems his father was not the paragon he thought he was.

At the funeral, he meets Benny played by Danny Sapani. We soon discover he is an unacknowledged child of Gil’s father, born just a few weeks after him. Gil and Benny are drawn to one another. From then on, they are set on a road that starts with bonding and leads them hand-in-hand to disaster.

The two men satisfy a need in the other. Gil is pleased to have a younger brother, albeit by a few weeks, someone he can impress. Benny, who spent much of his childhood in care, has a connection with a dad and siblings for the first time. There’s a lot about the effect of dads on sons, or the lack of a dad.

Production photo of hymn at The Alemida London with Adrian Lester and Danny Sapani
Adrian Lester & Danny Sapani in Hymn. Photo: Marc Brenner

Both have their demons and each boosts the other. They bond through music and dance. Lester and Sapani have fine voices and are good movers. The songs they sing pepper the story and, when they relive their 80s youth, it gives them a shared experience they never had at the time. The musically knowledgeable Benny calls it ‘sympathetic resonance’. The first song significantly is Bill Withers song that says ‘Lean on me when you’re not strong.’

In another scene Benny introduces Gil to a gym where he can unleash his frustration with his life.

For a while, it is wonderful to hear two men conversing about their lives and their feelings, relaxed and natural. But we know something must go wrong- the hints are there- and inevitably it does, but I won’t spoil anything by going into the details. Just to say, like any two people who blindly love each oither, they lead one another down this fatal path.

Adrian Lester takes us through many emotions as his character moves from confident to destroyed. His face, his voice, his eyes all transform— it’s a masterclass in acting. Danny Sapani too is excellent.  I was touched by sensitivity and a puppy-like enthusiasm he conveyed, so apparently at odds with his bulky body.

The 90 minutes fly by. Lolita Chakrabarti’s script is so tight and so true. It’s interesting, I think, that, in a time when it is sometimes suggested that authors should not or cannot write about things outside their experience, a woman manages to make these men so believable.

It’s unfortunate that covid restrictions prevent the actors touching, because there are moments when they would have hugged or given one another a helping hand but the camerawork does well to suggest closeness.

In fact, this is a lesson in how to film a stage play, especially considering it is done live. It feels very like theatre- the bare stage designed by Miriam Buether tdoes just enough to suggest and leave the rest to our imagination, Prema Mehta‘s lighting and Blanche McIntyre‘s direction ensure we concentrate on the two characters and hardly notice that we are seeing it through a lens.

I was applauding at the end. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that a recording will be made available.

Hymn is streaming nightly until Sunday 21 February 2021. Tickets available from https://almeida.co.uk

Click here to watch this review on the YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews