Tuesday, November 29

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow – Edinburgh King’s Theatre

In The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Ichabod Crane arrives in the eerie world of secrets and unsettling tradition of Sleepy Hollow to become the town teacher. But not all is as it seems, for Ichabod Crane harbours his own dark secret….

The play is based on the 1820 gothic story by American author Washington Irving, contained in his collection of 34 essays and short stories titled The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. Though the story is commonly accepted as having popularised the use of the pumpkin head at Halloween (replacing the turnip), it might be more familiar to most through its 1949 Disney adaptation and Tim Burton gothic nightmare. No, not the Dumbo remake.

The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949) adapted The Legend into a half-hour short packaged with an adaptation of The Wind In The Willows of a similar length, while Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow (1999) took many liberties with the plot and characters, changing Crane from the local schoolmaster into a police constable sent from New York City to investigate a series of murders committed by the undoubtedly real Headless Horseman. The most recent commonly available version is the 2013 crime/horror series Sleepy Hollow (2013) in which Ichabod Crane is reimagined as an English professor and turncoat during the Revolutionary War, who awakens in the 21st century and encounters the Headless Horseman, a felled mercenary whom Crane had decapitated 250 years prior.

Consequently adaptations of the Legend of Sleepy Hollow which change much of the story are nothing new, and this latest play, written by Philip Meeks and directed by Jake Smith (with assistant director Alys MacGregor), belongs very much to this tradition. In fact so little is left of the original story this is closer to an adaptation of the Wicker Man than a Washington Irving story, were it not for the name of the location and a few characters (Director Jake Smith described The Legend of Sleepy Hollow as “a great title”).

The changes may have been partly due to the difficulties of adapting the story for the stage, as the climax involves a chase on horseback through a dark forest at night, with one character desperate to reach a specific landmark before the other reaches him. Writer Philip Meeks probably agrees this is a difficult sequence to dramatise without making comedic, as he is quoted in the program as being pitched the project “While I nodded enthusiastically hiding my panic. I had no idea how it could be achieved.”

Credit: Craig Sugden

Another factor is the length of the original story, which is only 30-odd pages, hence why Tim Burton’s version took the film to feature length by using the story for a few scenes and character conflicts while essentially grafting on a whole new plot and character function for Ichabod Crane. As the writer and director of this play acknowledge, the play, which is around 20 minutes longer than the film, essentially does the same thing with its own plot, though it is possible some of the different elements were taken from other Irving works, as I noticed one reference to “Rip Van Winkle”, the other famous short story from the same collection as Sleepy Hollow, and Philip Meeks has previously written Edith In The Dark, which used E.E Nesbit’s disparate ghost stories to tell her story.

The trouble is that here, unlike (debatably) in the previous versions listed above, the new material isn’t very engaging or communicated effectively. The story is told out of sequence with characters motivations, backstories and many of their actions being withheld from the audience and just reported later (though we then sometimes get flashbacks that show us basically what we’ve already been told anyway). Some of this makes sense, for example in the case of building the story up to the telling of the legend rather than simply making it a prologue, or in adding in Ichabod Crane’s new backstory, though in the latter case the result is still less than effective.

Overall, we end up following characters we don’t know, doing things we don’t see for reasons we only learn later, a state of affairs worsened by the fact we don’t even see these things in chronological order. Thus, we spend more time hearing about what characters have done then watching them do it and watching events we have already previously had summarised, some of which (looking at you Brom twist) seem to have little bearing on anything.

This also stops the story building up any sense of dread as we are constantly jumping back and forwards (many of the scenes seem to last less than a couple of minutes, with blackouts and choreographed movement only highlighting the transitions), sometimes seeing characters meet after we’ve seen them interact. It is also not very easy to build up a rapport with characters whose actions are obscured both in motivation and, in many cases, reality, though how much of this is due to the writing and how much is due to the directing and performance (the cast includes Wendi Peeters, Bill Ward, Sam Jackson, Rose Quentin, Lewis Cope and Tommy Sim’aan) is up for debate. The entire affair would have benefited from a tighter focus, fewer characters, and a shorter run time.

The play is hardly a total loss. It has a niftily designed program, good use of magic trickery by illusions director Filipe J. Carvalho and an impressive set, lighting and sound design (courtesy of Amy Watts, Jason Addison and Sam Glossop) and clearly a lot of work has gone into the choreography and accents, but the play doesn’t use its source material to its advantage (by Act II it really isn’t using it at all) and what it chooses to replace it with just doesn’t work as well.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow continues until the 13th November at Edinburgh King’s Theatre https://www.capitaltheatres.com/whats-on/the-legend-of-sleepy-hollow

Reviewer: Oliver Giggins:

Reviewed: 8th November 2021

North West End UK Rating: ★★