Gunter review – Royal Court Theatre, London ★★★★☆

Photo: Alex Brenner

Gunter’s opening marks the end of the Vicky Featherstone era of the Royal Court. Or perhaps, given its status as a transfer from Edinburgh Fringe, and Featherstone’s official departure in late 2023, Gunter exists in the space between her reign and that of her successor David Byrne.

It’s the type of production that might speak to how Featherstone would like to see her legacy as she sought to throw open the doors of the writer’s theatre. Equally, it might be how Byrne would like to see his own place at the Court developing.

After all, Gunter is a brave, daring, no-holds-barred, risk-taking production, skewing and bending theatrical genres. Created by Dirty Hare (historian Lydia Higman, actor Julia Grogan and director Rachel Lemon) you can see the production’s workings, and it’s all the better for it.

Photo: Alex Brenner

The scene is set pre-show with contemporary and historical Pathé footage of hooliganism at the no-rules Ashbourne Shrovetide football match projected onto the stage. The true story – Higman is here with her historian hat on (not literally) and a microphone in hand (literally) to keep us to facts and add historical context – starts with a similar football match that results in the death of two young boys at the hands of Brian Gunter, the richest and most important man in North Moreton, a small village near Oxford.

He gets off with the murders – as men do -and the boy’s mother Elizabeth Gregory swears revenge à la an old Western cowboy. At which point, Brian’s daughter Anne starts having fits and convulsions. Elizabeth and two other women – always women – are blamed for bewitching Anne. Trials ensue.

The cast of three, Grogan, Hannah Jarrett-Scott and Norah Lopez Holden, play all the roles across the piece; the two young boys, Brian, Anne, Elizabeth, the judge, witch-hunters and sceptics. There’s even a Trump-ish King James I, who really would like to add another woman to the ranks of the 300-plus he has already had killed for witchcraft. Talk about hobbies. He’s played by Jarrett-Scott in the most entertaining performance of the evening.

Photo: Alex Brenner

Though keen at the beginning to reinforce the message that Higman is a historian and not an actor – so to forgive any issues with enunciation – it becomes clear that she is also an excellent multi-instrumentalist and songwriter. The piece is soundtracked by her folk compositions which morph into raw waspish-guitar-driven punk, propelling the action forward.

Dirty Hare blends a host of theatrical forms throughout; physical theatre, mask theatre, shadow puppetry, lecture, dance and gig theatre elements. When it works it is wonderful, yet oddly the piece sometimes feels longer than its short 70-minute runtime, probably because some of the more abstract elements almost sit alongside the narrative as detours. You feel like there is an even tighter, more impactful work here.

Not that they don’t get to the heart of the matter: male power of women and its modern parallels – no need for an explainer from Lydia there. And who else is out here in London blending genres like this? Giving these risk-taking theatre-makers the space to create this kind of theatre is a worthy end of an era for a writer’s theatre…or the start of another.

Gunter is at the Royal Court Theatre until 25 April 2024