Review – Wolf Hall

Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall – adapted for the stage by Mike Poulton – Gallery Players – Sir John Mills  till Fri March 30th

The Gallery Players are never shy of a challenge – and this is probably one of the biggest challenges they have given themselves. Having written my own Thomas Wolsey play in the past – and seen the original production of this one at Stratford – I know how complicated a subject Tudor politics was, and this adaption of Hilary Mantel’s award winning novel doesn’t make it much easier. There are a myriad of characters and some extremely intricate wheeling and dealing going on – so I would advise boning up on your Tudor history if you want to get the most out of this. But for those with a bit of knowledge and the staying power – you are in for a pretty rewarding evening.

The plot centres on the period of time where King Henry was trying to get rid of his first wife Katherine, who had failed to produce a son and heir in 20 years of marriage, in order to wed Ann Boleyn who had seduced him with a promise that she could.

The story line follows the role of Thomas Cromwell as the main protagonist – and Steve Taplin does an incredible job – not only having to be on stage for the majority of the time but embodying the rather enigmatic nature of this shadowy figure who seemed to be able to play both sides without panicking or getting burnt.

In the first half the action mainly revolves around his dealings with Cardinal Wolsey – whose birthplace was Ipswich and whose dreams of a college in the town were dashed as he fell from favour due to the impossible task of trying to please both Henry and Ann in the face of the opposition from powerful religious figures of the day.

Phil Cory is excellent as the Cardinal – full of power and might – yet visibly crumpling when he discovers his time is up. In a lot of ways the first half is carried by the strength of these two actors.

The rest of the cast come more into their own in the second half, although the structure is a little more bitty, as we follow the fortunes of, amongst others, Stephen Gardiner – a very strong performance by Simon Hoyle, Sir Thomas More – an understated and subtle performance by Steve Wooldridge, and Anne Boleyn – a solid characterisation from Charlotte Curtis.

Michael Cook is a rather exasperated Henry VIII – and although filling the stage with his presence could maybe have done with a little more light and shade in his delivery. Amongst the rest of the cast Lorena Cenci deserves a mention at Katherine of Aragon – a lovely haughty portrayal of a bruised yet unbowed Queen, and Bronte Fletcher, particularly good as the put upon Jayne Seymour.

Director James Hayward uses the limited space in the Sir John Mills well – and sensibly settles for a effective but minimal set – the scene changes were slick and the large cast well drilled. The costumes are very authentic and the sound and lighting did much to enhance the performance and keep the action moving,

This is a long evening – and the way the play is written rather short on drama and long on words. But all credit to the cast, they kept the pace going and the evening didn’t drag.

This is a serious production – and as an audience you have to work to keep up with the characters and the plot line – but if you go along prepared to put in the effort you will be rewarded by this very informative and well executed performance.

Suzanne Hawkes

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