DramaNorth East & YorkshireReview

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow – York Theatre Royal

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

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

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The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Jacob Bush. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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  1. Was really bored and confused, the Actors tried there best but as for the show I just could not wait for it to finish.

  2. Loved this play…
    If you were going expecting Tim Burtons film adaptation on stage then you WILL be disappointed. However if you go with an open mind and ready to hear a story then there’s a lot here to sink your teeth into. There isn’t just one tale being told here but stories within stories that overlap and twist forming the narrative but also revealing clues and red herrings along the way. So pay attention to the actors, this isn’t one where you can just sit back with your popcorn and icecream and let it wash over you.
    Horror and a sense of the uncanny are beautifully created with a spine chilling soundscape of nursery rhyme and music and typical objects such as rocking chairs, dolls etc.
    The human ‘shadow puppet’ sequence was particularly enjoyable; simple yet highly effective. There is perhaps an argument to say too many styles and story telling devices were utilised and it might have felt more harmonious (and easier for the audience) if one particular style had been utilised throughout, however is sleepy Hollow harmonious? In this case I felt the mix of styles added to the growing sense of unease throughout the play. The little dance sequences brought to mind the sense of a cult group, a shared and disturbing ritual between the residents of Sleepy Hollow to which Ichabod was an ignorant outsider.
    The cast were wonderfully versatile juggling so many story threads, characters and the smooth movement of large set pieces.
    The set was imposing, looming over and enclosing the actors giving the impression of an isolated, private and perhaps trapped community. The tree waited, always in the peripheral a constant reminder that secrets, dark practices and wild superstition were always present and threatening to engulf the characters.
    Chilling, well executed and enjoyable. Loved the parrot too. Go watch it and judge for yourself… just don’t lose your head.

  3. We saw this at The Palace Theatre Southend last night. There was some good staging, particularly in the second Act where the devil appears in silhouette. However garbled delivery from a number of actors, particularly when facing away from the audience, meant it was all but impossible at times to follow what was being said. And that was on top of the production as a whole being very muddled and disorganised in its telling of the story. I came to see this having very much enjoyed the 1999 film of the same name. I left feeling confused, disappointed and not a bit scared.

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