Theatre Review: ROBIN/RED/BREAST – Factory International, Manchester

Image courtesy of Wenjun Miakoda Liang.

Featuring a haunting and fractured score and a powerful performance from Maxine Peake, ROBIN/RED/BREAST is a powerful, disturbing, and provoking piece of theatre.

4 out of 5 stars

The early 1970s in Great Britain saw a resurgence in the folk horror genre with John Bowen’s BBC play ROBIN REDBREAST, now regarded as a cult classic and a precursor to the famed WICKER MAN in the cult lineage.  In this world premiere by Factory International in collaboration with MAAT, the work is updated to take the audience into a world of paranoia, fear, and deep distrust.  

The play centres around Norah, an escapee from the city and her former relationship seeking a more peaceful life but who finds herself drawn, or should that be trapped, into a world of ancient rituals and control.  Maxine Peak demonstrates why she is undoubtedly one of the best theatre actors of her generation, and in the lead and only speaking role, conveys the claustrophobia and increasing mind control experienced by Norah.  In a usual but very effective aspect, the audience can, via headsets, hear her thoughts, which creates a very uncomfortable and extreme immersion. However, this all adds to the sense of menace.  Special mention has to be made of Tyler Cameron whose role whilst silent is nonetheless striking.

This is an original production by MAAT, Maxine Peake, Sarah Frankcom, and  Imogen Knight. It features writing by regular collaborator Punchdrunk’s Daisy Johnson and a haunting and fractured score from the Gazelle Twins, drawing on traditional folk music; brass bands have never sounded so sinister. Lizzie Clachan’s staging is more than inventive, adding to the overall brooding atmosphere. The clever use of lighting in a restricted area accentuates the sense of entrapment and the simple but effective set.

The momentum of the play gathers at a frightening pace as we see Norah’s increasing descent into paranoia. The only criticism would be that there is a section near the end when we see a self-help group, which shudders into the narrative. This makes the earlier momentum seem fractured, but maybe that is the purpose: to further disorient the audience from what to expect, fast-forwarding to explain the eventual outcome. However, it somewhat dilutes the overall feeling of power that has been building.

The work is unsettling to experience.  It is raw, disquieting and above all it exudes all the hallmarks of a classic “us and them” tale without ever actually showing the audience the “them”.  It is shocking, disorientating and takes the audience on a deep foray into folk horror and themes of death, fertility and control which leaves the audience hanging on every word.

This is a must-see for any fan of folk horror. It is one of the most powerful, disturbing, and provoking works this reviewer has seen in a long time.

ROBIN/RED/BREAST runs at Factory International until 26 May 2024