By Chris Cullen
How lucky is the person who finds their true vocation in life. In the case of Lady Barbara Skelton, trapped in a dull marriage and frustrated by the life of a country lady, the discovery ultimately brings about her ruin. She becomes a highwayman.
The Wicked Lady is an adaptation by Bryony Lavery of the historical novel Life and Death of the Wicked Lady Skelton by Magdalen King-Hall. The novel itself is loosely based on the seventeenth century folk legend of Katherine Ferrers, and it was made into a film starring Margaret Lockwood in 1945. The film was considered mildly scandalous at the time, with its depiction of criminal behaviour and extramarital sex, and caused much worried discussion among equerries at Marlborough House that it might offend Queen Mary at its charity performance. Her Majesty’s reaction to the film is not recorded.
King-Hall’s novel is now almost forgotten, but when first published in 1944 it became a best seller. The novel with its startlingly progressive themes of liberated female sexuality and behaviour caught the mood of the largely female readership towards the end of the war, a time when ideas about gender roles were beginning to change.
Many directors would blanche at the considerable difficulties involved in staging Lavery’s adaptation. A historical drama using a group of twelve actors, most playing multiple roles in multiple locations, a horseriding sequence, a hanging, ice skating on the frozen Thames – it is to Jessica-Ann Jenner’s credit that she was able to unite all the elements of the plot to give the audience a gripping and highly exciting theatrical experience.
Using the excellently flexible multi-level set with evocative lighting by Emma Christmas, the action surged forward from place to place without us ever feeling lost. The electronic Baroque music was skilfully used to heighten the emotions of scenes. Kay Samways’ costumes looked wonderful, both underlining the historic period and also the status of the characters.
There were some great set piece moments: Barbara’s horseriding on a high swing gave a great feeling of freedom and excitement after the oppression of her marriage; the terrible hanging of Jerry Jackson achieved with the simplest of means but great effect. Barbara’s death, her body held high by those she had murdered, her face brightly lit, underscored by sombre strings, was a brilliant and moving way to end.
With her rich voice and vigorous energy, Holly Wilson played Barbara with a passionate intensity. She was highly believable as frustrated country lady, highwayman and lover. The chemistry between her and James Jaggs as Jerry Jackson was electric. The highly charged dance sequence at their first meeting told of their powerful attraction. With his patterned waistcoat and tall boots, James Jaggs was every inch the dashing highwayman, and it is a credit to his versatility that he was almost unrecognisable from his other roles as the Parson and Roger.
Andre Verazzo brought a quiet dignity to Ralph Skelton (apart from when skating!) and as his sister Paulina, Niamh Clark was marvellously embittered until transformed by her misguided love for Kit Locksby. Findlay Harrison-Phipps as Kit brought a fresh sincerity to the part, a good contrast to the worldly Jackson, and we understood Barbara’s depth of feeling for Kit (opposed to the erotic fixation for Jackson) – which ultimately led to her demise.
As the steward Hogarth, the only person to discover the truth about Lady Barbara, John Turnbull showed us this humane and dignified character’s unshakeable faith in her redemption, even as she was slowly poisoning him. Raph Phillips was highly believable as Ned Cotterell, and his skill transformed his moment of death into something really touching. Rob Widdicombe made Ned’s father plain-speaking and courageous, whilst Yasmine Angeni brought a convincing fragility to Martha. Rebecca Riddleston as the innkeeper Molly was full of rough jealousy and lust, whilst allowing us to see the deeper love for Jackson underneath. Giles Tebbitts showed admirable versatility – at one point the stern father figure, at another point a twittering old maid. Heather Wain brought a delightful comic energy to her four roles, most memorable perhaps as Mrs Munce the ‘respectable’ haberdasher with a shady past and some unexpected stock in the back room. The cast also played other smaller roles, including coming together as a Greek chorus, with much energy and commitment.
Stage manager Pat Jones and the backstage crew had quite a job on their hands marshalling so many short scenes. That the production ran so smoothly is in good part down to their hard work. The largest share of the applause, however, should go to Jessica-Ann Jenner for a highly inventive and energetic production which kept me on the edge of my seat throughout.