Women, Beware the Devil, Almeida Theatre, 2023
Photo: Marc BrennerAlison Oliver (Agnes)
  • Theatre, Drama
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‘Women, Beware the Devil’ review

4 out of 5 stars

Lulu Raczka’s new play is a gleefully camp contemplation of the nature of evil

Andrzej Lukowski

Time Out says

‘You don’t know me,’ laments Nathan Armarkwei-Laryea’s camply malevolent Devil as he wanders on at the outset of ‘Women, Beware the Devil’. People no longer believe in evil, he sighs, clutching his copy of the Evening Standard, so he’s going to take us back to the good old days, when men were men, women were women, witchfinders found witches, and evil was evil. 

Or was it?

Lulu Raczka’s Almeida debut manages to subvert so many things that it’s difficult to know where to start with a straightforward description of it. 

At its glibbest, it’s a sort of feminist version of ‘Blackadder’. At its most philosophical, it’s a contemplation of the idea of ‘evil’ as a necessary thing, synonymous with change. The story is an almost Pintereque account of a struggle to control a house – definite shades of ‘The Servant’ – but with more jokes, blood and witches.

The Devil spirits us back to 1642, on the cusp of the English Civil War. However, Lydia Leonard’s wily noblewoman Elizabeth has her mind on a different type of succession. She is the de facto mistress of her elegant family pile, living there with her dissolute brother Edward – a scene-stealing turn from Leo Bill as a dim, snobbish, reactionarily conservative toff. He’s a bachelor, happy to shag anything that moves… except an actual wife. Elizabeth desperately wants her brother to sire a legitimate male heir in order to secure control of the house, which would otherwise go to her hated cousin if anything were to happen to Edward.

To that end, she enlists Alison Oliver’s Agnes, a young peasant woman accused of witchcraft. Elizabeth threatens to have her hanged unless she uses her powers to compel Edward to marry Ioanna Kimbook’s wet-blanket Katherine, a nervous young woman from a wealthy working-class background. However, the initially shy, angst-ridden Agnes is stubborn: she wants to be good with a passion unequalled by anyone else in the play, least of all Elizabeth; in the end it’s Elizabeth’s charm – not her threats – that persuades Agnes to help her.

Raczka’s play is both enjoyably daft and disarmingly deep. It very much leans into the campness of the Jacobean revenge thriller – the name is an obvious allusion to Middleton’s ‘Women Beware Women’ – but is frequently overtly comic, with copious knowing fourth-wall-breaking and a magnificently silly performance from Bill as Edward, the beef-obsessed, responsibility-resistant product of generations of inbreeding.

But behind the jokes and gore and other thrills of Rupert Goold’s archly gripping production, ‘Women, Beware the Devil’ is unafraid to ask big questions. Is ‘evil’ just a synonym for change? Is ‘good’ just the status quo? Edward is loyal to the king, but only because he lacks the imagination to conceive of a different world. Elizabeth seeks to keep things as they are, but she has no real social status – it’s perhaps inevitable that she turns to the dark side to secure the house, because society isn’t going to do it for her. Agnes eventually abandons her fear of divine retribution and does terrible things. But society will allow nothing else: she must either meekly die an innocent or live a sinner. Although Armarkwei-Laryea’s Devil is more an arch adornment than anything else, it’s not hard to see the shadow of Milton’s heroic Satan informing the play’s thinking.

There are a couple of longueurs where it all goes a bit ‘period drama’, and although Goold is a master of pace, it feels like the end of the first half could do with a bit of a shave just to help it zip along. But the cast eat it up with infectious glee: it’s never less than entertaining,  a wickedly funny study of women and wickedness and wickedness in women. Infernally good stuff.


£20-£48.50. Runs 2hr 15min
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