This online offering from a touring company, something I wouldn’t normally have the pleasure of seeing, is a thriller from playwright Ali Milles. With a remote location that has a tragic history, there are plenty of details to spook, including flickering candles, slamming doors and no phone signal. But it’s the play’s focus on female stories that makes it stand out and, to an extent, smart and fulsome.
The Croft is driven by the romance between Laura and her older lover Susan – an interesting, intriguing and convincing relationship that Lucy Doyle and Caroline Harker both grab for all its considerable worth. The couple have problems. Laura mourns her mother, while Susan is still married with children, and their weekend away in Laura’s old family holiday home is fractious from the start. But their affection is persuasive and the characters appealing: Cain is excellent with explosions of anger, while Harker shows her character as outwardly calm yet full of panic. If the play is downhill from here, it’s a high starting point and the descent is not precipitous.
Plot is Milles’ strength, and introducing Laura’s past and the dark history of the cottage – a parallel story of two women, also of different ages, pitted against the patriarchy – is a hefty idea. Without overstating her case, Milles brings out ideas of autonomy and society nicely and keeps the action engaging. Although the result isn’t as potent as it could be – too much else gets in the way – director Philip Franks keeps matters moving, aided by Max Pappenheim’s strong sound design, which I would have loved to have experienced live.
Problems come from too many additions. The story of Laura’s mother, and a battle for dignity against cancer, fits in thematically but slows down the play – fatal in any thriller. And it makes an unhappy second role for Harker. Likewise, all the roles for men feel a touch superfluous. A scene with Laura’s father could easily be cut (despite Simon Roberts’ efforts) and, while Drew Cain has a strong presence, his roles carry the burden of too much exposition.
Since the story of the cottage’s previous tenants, Enid and Eilene, is strong in its own right, The Croft can still be recommended. There’s a sense that Gwen Taylor, as Enid, isn’t given enough to do, while Eilene makes a strong dual role for Doyle despite having fewer appearances. But a story crying out for further exploration is an exciting proposition. Suggestions of spirits and witchcraft all lead the way and prove haunting rather than just creepy.
Available at www.originaltheatre.com
Photos by Charlotte Graham