14 February 2023
WOMEN, BEWARE THE DEVIL (Almeida Theatre) Review
The content warnings for this production were pretty grim, and the plot summary on the Almeida website, though noncommittal, did hint toward a drama. And yet, to my surprise and delight, the show was a clever comedy! Yes, there was abuse and death and violence and all sorts of nasty things in the play, but it still felt like a comedy with some serious bits in it rather than a drama with a few laughs.
The set-up is fairly vanilla (don’t worry, no spoilers here): Elizabeth, an aristocratic spinster trying to save her family mansion from literally collapsing on account of not having any money for repairs, wishes that her brother Edward would marry young Katherine, who isn’t nobility but comes from money, which would be handy for the family, yet Edward is less than smitten with her. In order to get Edward to change his mind, Elizabeth enlists the help of Agnes (a servant girl who is rumoured to be a witch).
As the play goes on, one thing leads to another, with everyone and everything deteriorating and going from bad to worse in a rapid cascade. But… it’s hysterical! Lydia Leonard (who plays Katherine and who I only know from “Flesh and Blood” where she was excellent) doesn’t take herself too seriously, and it lifts the play, keeping it funny but without tipping into mockery or panto. As Leonard stomps around the set being constantly annoyed with Edward or Agnes or both she creates a wonderful air of sadness for her Katherine.
Outside of minor characters with a few lines between them, Edward (played by Leo Bill with great fanfare and self-importance) is the only male character in the play. The rest of the characters are women who love, laugh, dream, fear, and gossip. And yet Lulu Raczka, who wrote this play, seems to have a far better feel for writing men than women. Edward is somewhat of an exaggeration of a buffoon we’ve all been out on a date with at least once, but he is incredibly realistic. The bedroom “dog” scene between Edward and Katherine (it’s not as bad as it sounds, they are in the bedroom, and being a dog comes up in conversation) is incredibly sad, but I can name 10 friends in less than a minute who have been in Katherine’s shoes. Maybe that’s why it’s a comedy that feels more clever than comical… The women on the other hand… Both Elizabeth and Agnes are strong independent women, but all of their philosophising, especially at the very end, felt forced and far less natural than anything Raczka had Edward do or say.
There was a delightful surprise mid-play: I was certain that we would have a case of Chekhov’s gun (or, rather, Chekhov’s beef in this case) firing before the show ends, but that’s not what actually happens. It would’ve been so easy to just go there for a cheap laugh, but no, and so I absolutely loved that about the play, of course. There are also plenty of other twists and turns to keep you guessing.
The very beginning and very end weren’t my favourite, with the former being too topical and the latter being too abstract. I reckon Ruper Goold, who directed, ought to rein it in a little, but that’s just my opinion.
The set, courtesy of Miriam Buether is something you normally see in the West end, and I’ve never seen anything like this at Almeida (didn’t even think the space there would allow for a thing like that). The bed is clever (again, had no idea this was possible at Almeida), and I loved it how it had lights at the top to ensure that actors were naturally lit. Evie Gurney’s costumes were absolutely lavish and gorgeous to look at.
Cheapskate enjoyment value: £8.