King's Theatre Edinburgh (venue)
08 November 2021 (released)
09 November 2021
Beware the headless horseman and beware Sleepy Hollow, where nothing is like it seems and where every inhabitant seems to harbour a dark secret! So secret that audiences might feel challenged to follow the overtly complex plot which bears a bigger nod to the good old Hammer Horror productions of yesteryear than Washington Irving’s famous story.
Writer Philip Meeks (a self-confessed horror geek) and director Jake Smith doubtlessly had the best intentions in mind when they decided to adapt Irving’s famous ghost story – a classic of American literature (albeit more of a children story) which has inspired numerous directors over the decades, resulting in TV-films and most notably in Tim Burton’s 1999 blood-drenched Grand Guignol take on the legend of the headless horseman (now that WAS a proper tribute to Hammer Horror!).
Since the 1940s various stage adaptations have also emerged though these usually were musicals. However, thanks to Tilted Wig Productions theatre-goers up and down the country can finally enjoy a stage production which has plenty of music and dance but is not a musical… although the questions beckons: what precisely is it?
The set and costumes (created by Amy Watts) admittedly look the business… a creepy courtyard in the Dutch settlement of Tarry Town wedged in the secluded glen of Sleepy Hollow. Illusions director Filipe J. Carvalho does a fair old job turning this little world into an even eerier place… the famous tree lights up red at precisely the right moments and we even have a sinister glowing Jack-o-Lantern centre stage, just to make sure we are aware that the unfolding action takes place during the run-up to Hallowseve as it was called back then. Is there a headless horseman galloping onto stage I hear you ask? Well, not exactly galloping but yes there is! So far so good!
Equally, the cast are prepared to give their souls to ensure a frightfully good entertainment, with various stages of success. Much-loved actor Bill Ward makes a welcome return to the Edinburgh stage after a lengthy lockdown. Here he plays wealthy farmer and landowner Baltus Von Tassel whose daughter Katrina (Rose Quentin) is betrothed to cocky ‘bully boy’ Brom ‘Bones’ Van Brunt (Lewis Cope) but… There are many ‘buts’ in this production and we encounter the first ‘but’ with the arrival of teacher Ichabod Crane (Sam Jackson) who seems to have his own agenda; is interested in Sleepy Hollow’s superstitions and most of all, in winning the hand of Katrina. This of course means that one day, Baltus’ wealth will be transferred to him and farmhand Brom would be left with nothing – no wonder the lad isn’t too keen on Ichabod! The remaining characters are farmhand Joost De Groot (Tommy Sim’aan) and mysterious widow Mariette Papenfuss (Wendi Peters). Invented especially for this production, Mariette is easily the most interesting figure here and becomes a sort of confidante to Ichabod. She’s also full of stories and bears in fact the biggest secret…
The first Act concerns itself with Ichabod’s arrival, Brom and Joost’s attempts to intimidate him and a lot of folk dancing (sometimes it feels more like ‘The Wicker Man’ than ‘Sleepy Hollow’!). Slowly but surely the residents reveal more and more about the various superstitions which have plagued Sleepy Hollow since it was founded but it’s here that writer Meeks’ imagination possibly galloped away a little too far what with the invisible ghost of a dead child in a rocking chair and above all, an elaborate backstory in Act 2 which attempts to explain how the region became bewitched by the ancient evil spirit of the Wendigo, a mythological creature which originates from the folklore of various Native American tribes along the East coast. We even have Joost De Groot taking on the part of the Wendigo in a shadow puppet play (one of the most inspired moments this production has to offer) while the rest of the cast equally take on different characters to reveal how the legend of the headless horseman came about. In between, we have plenty of dry ice and dream sequences with Ichabod dreaming that he is seduced by Katrina… only for Brom to emerge from under the blanket (how times have shifted…).
At the end, the notorious horseman finally comes to claim Ichabod and this is not a give-away as folks familiar with the tale will know there is no happy ending for our Ichabod. There’s even an epilogue of sorts set in the 1950s which you will only get if you’ve really paid attention to all the goings-on during the first hour. Sometimes it feels as if writer Philip Meeks attempts to turn all this into a detailed and elaborate re-telling of the story backfires thanks to the fact that way too much is crammed into the production. Perhaps less would have been more. Then again, you may disagree.
THE LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW runs at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, until Saturday 13th November and you can book via www.capitaltheatres.com
(Photo: Craig Sugden)