Review: 'Ben and Jamie'

Portrait of Ben Johnson by Abraham van Blyenberch, c.1617, National Portrait Gallery, London. Source:  

Portrait of Ben Johnson by Abraham van Blyenberch, c.1617, National Portrait Gallery, London. Source: 

By Sam Connolly

Ben and Jamie tells the story of the Rutland witchcraft case of 1619-20, setting out an alternate solution to the deaths of the sons of the Earl and Countess of Rutland, with Ben Johnson playing detective in this thriller. Certainly the elements should make for a good play; witches, political and religious scheming, murder. Indeed the play was enjoyable, but unfortunately it failed to reach the lofty heights to which it aspired with such an intriguing premise.

Ultimately, aspects of the play did not fuse effectively. To present a play supposedly about trying to find reason and overcome superstition and then presenting the audience with witches dancing on stage? The effect was simply confusion, though the dancing itself was hypnotic. Other aspects were simply uncomfortable, especially the Pippa Flower blackmail scene, or bizarre, such as her confession. It felt like the playwright almost delighted in going further than the plot required with peculiar language, which simply felt gratuitous. The phrase, “magic bubbies” springs to mind. I got the impression that possibly the playwright had intended for some of these aspects to be humorous but this was lost in translation. It was a shame that women weren’t given more agency in the production, simply acting as objects for the men: sexual desire, scapegoats, or to be talked at, though it is possibly worth noting that, due to a conversation between the Flower women about the fact that they were in great danger, the play passes the Bechdel test.  

The heart of the problem with this play however, was that the plot was inherently too simple. In fact, only one character really has agency in the whole play, the Marquis, who orchestrates the murders, the framing, and blackmails Ben Johnson into keeping silent. There were no shocks to re-captivate the audience and it felt as though, after the plot had been set up, it simply played out in a deterministic fashion, a zero-sum game. Even the plot twist, King James VI and I turning up, barely affected the narrative, if it did at all.

The play was nevertheless enjoyable. The dialogue was fast-paced and entertaining and the narrative was at least clear and interesting. The characters were crafted to convincingly verbally joust. Two performances in particular stood out: Niall Kennedy, as Ben Johnson brought great gravitas to the role, his command of both his own voice and physical performance ensured that any scene he was in was entertaining. Alice Gold as Joan Flowers was virtually flawless in her all too brief role, the stage presence of both actors transformed the awkward layout of the theatre space (side note: it is never conducive to immersion in theatre to be able to see other audience members opposite you, especially when they start eating pasta pots) by drawing full attention with the physical aspect of their performances. The rest of the cast gave solid performances, with impressive uses of accents, and Peter Sutton should be commended for filling in as Vincent at the last minute, in addition to directing and acting in another role.

What most certainly can be praised about this play is the production; the directing was clearly tight and well thought through; the play flowed excellently. The period costumes gave a nice touch. The production was efficient, but unfortunately limited by the confusing material they had to work with.