Review: Knives in Hens, Arcola Theatre

“Pull them sleeves up, Miller”

Rather amusingly, Hackney Council’s newsletter refers to this play as Hens with Knives, a completely different Orwellian prospect, one wonders, and a possible new commission for someone! Knives in Hens as this play is more commonly known, was my first experience in the studio space at the rear of the Arcola, and an interesting one it is too.

The first play written by David Harrower, who had success with his most recent play Blackbird, this is a look at the role of language in intellectual awakening. An uneducated young woman, trapped by marriage in a closed and superstitious community, develops an intense relationship with the village outcast, a miller. He reads and writes and so is distrusted by the villagers, but offers the woman a route to her own intellectual and sexual awakening, away from the life to which she is accustomed.

Jodie McNee’s Woman is nicely portrayed, sensitively showing the potential aroused in her by the new connection in her life: her increasing ability to name things, setting herself free and open to what she might become is a nice judged journey. As the agent of change in her life, Phil Cheadle’s handsome miller is laden with enigmatic temptation and Nathaniel Martello-White (recently impressive in Innocence at the same theatre) as her unyielding husband was also good.

In the intimate gravel-covered space, 3 wooden pillars evoke the rural setting of the play but are also cleverly to suggest a series of locations and doorways . The action is accompanied by live cello music performed by Maria Grico. Initially this proved quite atmospheric, but as we got into the action, I actually found it to be intrusive, especially when it was playing over the talking, the language is powerful and interesting enough without it.

Never outstaying its welcome, this is an engaging, haunting play, strongly acted, nicely staged and with a confident, intelligent use of language, the opening scene in particular is simply written yet immensely powerful, which is a real pleasure to watch.

Running time: 80 minutes (with no interval)
Programme cost: £1

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