REVIEW: The Croft, Derby Theatre (UK Tour) ✭✭✭

Gary Stringer reviews Original Theatre Company's production of The Croft by Ali Milles at Derby Theatre as part of its UK Tour.

The Croft UK Tour
Lucy Doyle and Gwen Taylor. Photo: Charlotte Graham

The Croft
Derby Theatre and on tour
Three stars
The Croft UK Tour Schedule

This ambitious debut by writer Ali Milles, directed by Philip Franks for the Original Theatre Company, addresses some pretty big themes: mortality, sexuality, religion, grief and our place within the natural world. Set across three different times, anchored by the beautifully crafted staging of the titular dwelling by designer Adrian Linford, this is a haunting ghost story disguised as family drama. Or is it perhaps the other way around?

Unsure whether to dial up the gothic frights or set its pitch with the secrets and lies inherent within family tragedy, the result is a bold but uneven thriller. This is a piece looking at duality, nature versus nurture, tradition versus modernity, free will versus the expectations placed upon us. The Croft itself, in its isolated Highlands setting, is a place almost outside of time, both a refuge and a prison.

With impressive performances by Lucy Doyle, Caroline Harker and Derbyshire’s very own Gwen Taylor, the writing is a strong showcase for strong female characters. Taylor’s Enid is the axis at the centre of the three separate time zones, which stretch from 1870 to the present day. Reinforcing the theme of duality, she is both healer and heretic, witch and wise woman, while Caroline Harker excellently portrays two very different women dealing with the consequences of two very different reasons for leaving their families.

Original Theatre Company
Lucy Doyle and Caroline Harker. Photo: Charlotte Graham

As both Laura and Eilene, Lucy Doyle impressively demonstrates anger and confusion resulting from abandonment and betrayal, emotions that echo across the centuries separating their stories, adding a suggestion of reincarnation to the supernatural elements of the piece. The actions of all the women characterised are a reaction to and rejection of the roles placed on them by a patriarchal society, lovers, wives and daughters. The Croft as both a place and a play challenges them to dare to explore alternatives.

The patriarchy is represented ably by Drew Cain and Simon Roberts, portraying characters who are perhaps even more constrained by the rigid roles enforced upon them by society. Intimidated and threatened by female sexuality, they reject intimacy as they seek to impose order on a natural world that they only think they have tamed. As Cain’s stalwart gillie David portentously states, “this place does not take to everyone”. He didn’t need to add that there is perhaps no escaping if it should.

The Croft review Derby Theatre
Drew Cain and Lucy Doyle. Photo: Charlotte Graham

Haunted house scares – flickering lights, slamming doors and faces half-glimpsed at windows – are effectively used but are in completion with 21st-century concerns such as isolation, rejection and trying to find a role in a rapidly changing world. The characters are faced with a stark choice, whether to rebel and face the insurmountable weight of history and expectation.

This invitation from Ali Milles to join her for this visit to the wilds of the Scottish Highlands as it continues its UK tour is an interesting but sometimes challenging opportunity. While it is over-reaching and on occasion disorientating, the audience at Derby Theatre were rewarded with haunting performances that left them with a lot to think about.

Running at Derby Theatre to 1 February 2020 as part of a UK tour.

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