Review: Women, Beware the Devil, Almeida Theatre ★★★☆☆

Alison Oliver and Lydia Leonard. Photo: Marc Brenner

Lulu Raczka’s new play Women, Beware the Devil is something of a conundrum; it is expertly acted, well directed (Rupert Goold), beautifully designed (Miriam Buether) and dressed (Evie Gurney), but, largely as a consequence of Raczka’s attempt to blur genres, it just doesn’t quite land.

We begin in the present day, with the Devil himself recounting modern tales of woe to highlight that his work is done – no one blames the devil anymore – before we’re flung back to 1640 and a time when the Devil was hard at work, in a moment of hysteria where rumours of witchcraft were rife and witchfinders sought out those women who were believed to be consorting so that they could be hanged for the act. In the background, a civil war is brewing to match the civil war rumbling inside the walls of the ancestral home of Lady Elizabeth (Lydia Leonard) who has brought alleged witch Agnes (Alison Oliver) into her home in a Faustian pact to ensure the continuation of the family line and, by extension, the survival of the house itself.

Though the most obvious parallel is between Women, Beware the Devil and The Crucible, which has just closed at the National and is set to transfer to the West End, however, there is also something of the mood of Alistair McDowall’s The Glow here. McDowall’s play, seen this time last year at the Royal Court, is echoied both in setting and its slick staging – and both plays suffer from similar issues in their attempts to blur genres and eschew typical genre tropes. One moment it is a historical piece, the next a dark comedy, the next a horror; the shunting from one to the other completely displacing the rhythm.

The characters feel underwritten too, their various actions lacking any form of rationale other than seeming gut instinct. Agnes desperately wants to be good but takes less than a minute to completely betray those morals, Lady Elizabeth seems to have a different motivation in every scene and Edward’s (Leo Bill) decisions seem to lack any form of consideration for anything – fine, if that’s the point but it doesn’t seem like it’s meant to be.

And, yet, once we get through the overlong first half and we get into the meatier (and shorter) second half things improve; the pace picks up and, with Agnes given more room to unleash herself, and Oliver finally gets to act more than simply hissing at her co-stars, the play becomes, dare I say it, very entertaining – even if the ending does feel contrived. Oliver delivers a stand-out performance, showing that, as with recent Almeida alumni Paul Mescal, there is a very promising career beyond a Sally Rooney television adaption. Leonard is excellent too and Ioanna Kimbook does incredibly well to bring life to Lady Elizabeth’s unfortunate, but incredibly one-dimensional, sister-in-law Katherine.

How to sum it up then? Suffer for your sins in the first half to find redemption after the interval – and don’t take it too seriously.

Women, Beware the Devil is at the Almeida Theatre until 25 March