Writer: Philip Meeks
Director: Jake Smith
Tilted Wig’s production of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, which originated at the Churchill Theatre, Bromley, and is now on the second week of a ten-week tour, correctly cites Philip Meeks as the writer – none of the pussy-footing around with “by Washington Irving, adapted by Philip Meeks”. Not that the company attempts to air-brush Mr. Irving out of Sleepy Hollow (there is a double page about him in the programme) – it’s just that describing him as the author would have been inaccurate. He would probably have found it as difficult to follow as many of the audience.
Elements of the original remain. Ichabod Crane is still a schoolteacher newly arrived in Sleepy Hollow, though he now has a bizarre secret mission, too. He still finds Brom van Brunt a rival in love for the heiress Katrina van Tassel. There is still a pleasing ambiguity about “supernatural” events – are they truly supernatural or the result of human mischief or malice? The Headless Horseman still gets star billing, though he seems to take second place in the Deadly Supernatural Stakes to something called The Wendigo.
Jake Smith’s production throws everything at the horror and many of the effects are very well crafted. Amy Watts’ flexible sort-of-courtyard set (capable of turning inside out into sort-of-parlour) has a European rather than American feel, but that’s fine, given that this is a community descended from Dutch settlers. The hard-working team of six actors are as committed and versatile as you could wish. Sound and lighting add their bit to the horror, there are some telling illusions and the use of distorted nursery songs, notably Lavender Blue, can be chilling.
Yet it doesn’t work. Why not? Maybe Meeks and Smith need to decide how much we’re meant to laugh at the over-the-top horror. Certainly the narrative should be much clearer. The alternative story is complicated, not helped by a constantly-changing-gear presentation, moving from short scenes separated by strange little stamping dances to melodramatically staged horrors of the past that helped turn Sleepy Hollow into a 19th century ancestor of The League of Gentlemen’s Royston Vasey. A final barrier to understanding comes via some actors who alternate passion or melodrama with conversational expression that’s better suited to a studio theatre – and some odd accents don’t help.
Having said that, the actors give everything. Widow Papenfuss is an added character, described by Smith as “an enigma” (who isn’t?), and Wendi Peters brings a droll humanity to the character and, in the dramatized scenes, knows just how to go way over the top without falling in a heap on the other side. The other above-the-titles name, Bill Ward, has little to do as a sterling Baltus van Tassel and spends much of the evening in various grotesque disguises. So too does Tommy Sim’aan as everything from a charming girl (bearded) to a malevolent spirit.
Of the three rivals Sam Jackson (Ichabod Crane) offers the most hope of something distinctive, with his oboe-like voice and coolly self-regarding manner, but he makes less impact as the play progresses and too often replaces passion with shouting. Rose Quentin (Katrina) and Lewis Cope (Brom) start off attractively playing stereotypes before negotiating twists and turns that don’t add a lot to the characters.
Runs until 9th October 2021