Flawed but enjoyable as The Legend of Sleepy Hollow plays Eastbourne

REVIEW BY Kevin Anderson

Sleepy Hollow
Sleepy Hollow

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Devonshire Park Theatre, Eastbourne, Tue 23 Nov 2021 to Sat 27 Nov 2021

It’s an odd but wonderful truth about theatre, that a production can be flawed but still enjoyable. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, brought to the Devonshire Park Theatre this week by Tilted Wig Productions, falls squarely in that category.

The flaws, bluntly, are in the scripting. Washington Irving’s tale, from early 19th Century America, is classic horror. On the page, you can grasp the plot as it unfolds. But here on stage, the story-telling is hard to follow and sometimes frankly bewildering. Writer Philip Meeks may have set out to tease and tantalise us, but often the narrative simply leaves the audience lost. Perhaps with several viewings, the action might get clearer, but you’d better hurry, for the show is only here till Saturday…

There is, warns one character with a line of genuine insight, nothing more terrifying than those who believe their actions are divinely justified. By divinely, he includes the Devil as well as the Almighty, for this strange pagan enclave is gripped by furtive, lurking evil.

We are in the America of the early settlers – Arthur Miller’s Crucible territory, but even more terrible. Not human frailties, but dark forces. Into the remote village of Sleepy Hollow comes new schoolmaster Ichabod Crane, part innocent and part crusader for truth. But there is nary a friendly welcome or warm handshake – only suspicion, and secretive fear of outsiders.

In the Ichabod Crane role, the excellent Sam Jackson cuts a slight and quite youthful figure. His characterisation works well, for Crane is ultimately vulnerable, a stranger in a strange environment which he cannot ultimately control or change.

The closest to a sympathetic friend is the grandmotherly figure of Widow Mariette, played with assurance and even a hint of humour by accomplished actress Wendi Peters – whose long-running Cilla Battersby character in Coronation Street was rather different. The Widow is the nearest to a constant, while the swirling and terrifying events unfold.

Bill Ward, as Baltus von Tassel, is an equally familiar face from Coronation Street, where he played lovable rogue Charlie Stubbs. A fine actor just like Wendi, he strikes enigmatic poses and declaims with authority. Rose Quentin plays Katrina with a nice mix of allure and aloofness, as underlying sexual tensions re teased out.

Lewis Cope and Tommy Sim’aan complete the company of six – all of whom show terrific stagecraft, versatility and often athleticism. No reservations, then, about the quality of acting.

And production values are high, albeit dependent on large doses of special effects, shocks, and enough dry ice for a 1950s London fog. A high and dominating set gives a claustrophobic feel to the action, and there are some phenomenal effects. Blinding lights and booming thunder: designer Amy Watts and director Jake Smith have not missed a trick.

We may or may not actually see the legendary Headless Horseman of Washington Irving’s original story – you’ll need to buy a ticket – but the actors do even create the Horse, marvellous and truly terrifying.

It is all a kind of distorted reality, seen through clouded glass. A nursery rhyme – Lavender’s Blue – but sung in minor key. Platitudes parroted – by a parrot. Innocent apple-bobbing, but turned into a vicious game.

Flawed? Frankly, yes. Enjoyable? Yes, if you can live with the flaws.

REVIEW BY Kevin Anderson