Drawing on the letters of Charlotte Brontë, The Moors promises a Gothic revival for the 21st century. It’s more witch-core than Wuthering Heights, more Kate Bush than macabre, and more pub-theatre – or even Edinburgh Fringe – than National Theatre.
Directed by Phil Bartlett, the play’s rough-and-readiness gives it its charm. Beneath the peeling wallpaper of The Hope’s backroom, we sit in wooden chairs immersed in the action, taking part in this trapped-in-the-attic tale. Jonathan Simpson’s lighting, and Julian Starr and Daniel Kluger’s sound design and music, are a secondary, constant, and suffocating backdrop. And though all six cast members have graduated since Covid, they’re at ease interacting amongst the confined crowd, else responding to the roars of traffic and technical problems.
Writer Jen Silverman retains the ‘savagery’ of Brontë’s Yorkshire Moors, but confines most of the drama to the domestic setting. A small family – two sisters, and their absent brother Branwell – await a live-in governess from London. But on her arrival, Emilie (Meredith Lewis) finds neither the brother, nor baby, for whom she was expecting to care – and the narrative quickly descends into one of manipulation, queer romance, and a complete departure from the ordinary laws of space and time.
‘When I’m in the scullery, I have typhus. When I’m in the parlour, I have a baby,’ says Marjory/Mallory, two hyperbolic housemaids rolled into one by Tamara Fairbairn. Kenia Fenton (younger sister Huldey), gleams with the sweat of an aspirant writer, driven to murder for the sake of a good story. Her pursuit of fame – or infamy – brings her closer to Brontë herself. She suggests that one can change the course of time simply by ascribing one’s emotions to a different day in a diary.
It’s hard to draw the line between charming Hallowe’en-y humour, and caricature. Huldey’s power ballad I Did A Bad Thing, and the odd spurt of slang or contemporary language in the script, are both jarring divergences from Silverman’s original stage directions.
Whilst woman-led, The Moors’ characters are often underdeveloped. Peter Hadfield, as the mastiff dog musing over God, gets the greatest philosophical dialogue. (‘My drama school teacher would hate me,’ he remarks, of his mix of Hugh Grant and nose-and-paws physical performance in a post-show Q&A.)
Nuance comes instead in their interactions. Imogen MacKenzie, as the calculating Agatha, criticises the naïve Governess, for believing her ‘incapable’ of imitating Branwell’s hand, lying to her in letters where she has written ‘like a man’. It’s a subtle point which collapses prejudices about power and gender, between the ‘progressive’ city, and the parochial rural environment.
All images Steve Gregson. The award-winning 50-seat Hope Theatre is above London’s famous Hope and Anchor pub.