When the Reverend William Mompesson (Sam Crane) arrives in Eyam, Derbyshire, in 1665, he finds a small village already suffering from plagues of one kind or another. Before boils and fevers present themselves as the things to fear the most, local landowner Philip Sheldon (Adrian Bower) and the unseen Sir Saville are viewed as their own forms of pestilence.
With the legacy of the Civil War still weighing on the villagers, and the last vicar publicly hanged and dragged through the surrounding lanes, the community is rife with gossip and un-neighbourly squabbles. Then come the crows.
Adele Thomas’ production of Matt Hartley’s semi-fictional retelling Eyam’s self-imposed quarantine marks the coming of plague with the continued appearance of a murder of Grim Reaper crows. Sometimes they softly intone choral passages, at others they congregate in silence, their long black beaks poking out from monastic hoods.
Their meditative, doom-filled presence contrasts with the robust bustle of normal village life. Hartley, who grew up in the village next door to real-life Eyam, gives the populace an entire dictionary of earthy expletives to use. A lot of the humour comes from their ability to compare pretty much anything to shit, piss or an arse – a carriage is parked on “I-don’t-give-a-fuck lane”.
The production uses the same cast (plus Sam Crane) as Blanche McIntyre’s The Winter’s Tale earlier in the season. As then, Priyanga Burford, Sirine Saba and Norah Lopez-Holden all stand out for their performances. Burford, who played Hermione, here takes on the role of another devoted wife. But this time she’s actually heard, acting as a calming and devout voice of reason during her husband’s more agitated moments.
Lopez-Holden, meanwhile, is a wellspring of youthful love and hope as Emmott Sydall.
Eyam is the first production this season to be mainly staged after sunset, giving it an aptly fatalistic feel. Hannah Clark’s puritanical set of monochrome starkness matches up neatly with the growing darkness, as do the eldritch chimes filling Orlando Gough’s score.
Less successful is the oddly bloodless disembowelment of a deer and a buried alive grave-digging scene. The latter falls flat partly because the forward placing of trapdoors allows the audience in the upper levels to see directly into them and under the stage, which then spoils the theatrical trick of switching the body bags.
Gripes aside, Eyam manages to remain compelling even in its clumsier moments. Perhaps it’s because the story is so genuinely fascinating and this dramatic moment in British history so rarely revisited.