Review: The Crucible at the Gielgud Theatre ★★★★

Review: The Crucible at the Gielgud Theatre ★★★★

Sure to be a summer hit at The Gielgud, the NT’s revival of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible is a powerful theatrical experience.

The Crucible | The Gielgud Theatre | Until 2 September 2023

Known to as many Brits from their GCSE curriculum as To Kill A Mockingbird or Romeo & Juliet, The Crucible is nevertheless worthy of a bells-and-whistles West End production – and this transfer from the National Theatre, directed by Lyndsey Turner and designed by the apparently omnipresent Es Devlin, delivers the goods.

There may not be a more exhilarating, and emotionally exhausting, first act of a play than that conjured here – what begins as, essentially, a fairly gentle two-hander builds inexorably towards a full-cast explosion of pent-up tension. It’s like a caffeinated anxiety dream, as Nick Fletcher’s Reverend Parris tries to get to the bottom of his daughter’s sudden mysterious illness only to become convinced that his niece, Milly Alcock’s Abigail, knows more than she’s letting on. Could it be that young Betty Parris has fallen victim to some witchy curse? And would such a discovery help or hinder Reverend Parris’s bid to retain the confidence of his community?

Review: The Crucible at the Gielgud Theatre ★★★★ 1

As the cast of local townsfolk make their way to the fore (literally, arriving from the impenetrably dark furthest reaches of Es Devlin’s fairly traditional, low-key set), the stakes are raised: a group of local girls has been seen dancing in the forest, Parris’s Barbadian slave Tituba may or may not have recited satanic verse, and a local farmer – Brian Gleeson, incandescent as John Proctor – finds himself entwined in a dangerous game of spurned advances which threatens to light the whole tinder box. From gentle beginnings, Act One reaches fever pitch as Betty Parris rises from her bed to lead a chorus of accusations aimed at the local townsfolk. It’s thrilling, arresting drama of impeccable quality.

Review: The Crucible at the Gielgud Theatre ★★★★ 2

Gleeson and Alcock are terrific, utterly captivating with every utterance. Also excellent are Nadine Higgin as Tituba, making the most of her scene-stealing, first-half monologue; Nia Towle as a girl whose truth may cast compelling doubt upon the witchcraft accusations; and Karl Johnson as an elderly local who delivers some much needed comic relief. Meanwhile, Fisayo Akinade is revelatory as witchcraft and demonology expert Reverend John Hale, who arrives in town to investigate. His character progression through the final two-thirds of the play is played to perfection.

Review: The Crucible at the Gielgud Theatre ★★★★ 3

The momentum of the first half dissipates somewhat as the second half moves into courtroom drama mode – which is not to say that there aren’t still moments of sheer dramatic bravura, just that they feel more spaced out. Matthew Marsh channels Frasier Craine as Governor Danforth, who oversees the trial of the accused townsfolk. Lives are on the line, the noose awaiting those who are convicted of witchcraft and refuse to repent – the stakes could not be higher.

Review: The Crucible at the Gielgud Theatre ★★★★ 4

The relevance of all this, when the play premiered in 1953, was of course the scourge of McCarthyism. The allegory stands up today, too, whether Johnsonian post-truth politics, climate change-denial, transphobia or all-of-the-above-and-more are your swap-ins for the red scare. Director Lyndsey Turner lets the text do the talking and the audience do the thinking – there are no shoe-horned contemporary references, or knowing winks towards the audience. Dumbed down or preachy this is not.

Review: The Crucible at the Gielgud Theatre ★★★★ 5

A word on the design. The front-of-stage rain effect is arresting, but is essentially a between-scenes amusement. Beyond that bit of stage gimmickry, this Crucible is presented pretty traditionally. In the second half, in particular, the lighting and sound really comes into its own, but the wow-effect is left to the text and the performers.

As impressive as you’ll get from a traditional theatre experience, The Crucible is well worth catching on its West End run.