Usually, I have to wait on BBC America or Netflix for the newest installments of dark and tormented dramatic thrillers, like “Luther” or “Broadchurch”- where you never quite know who to trust or who is telling the truth. So imagine my delight that Director Rob Lufty and his talented cast of THE VIRGIN TRIAL have brought an intriguing British set drama straight to the Cygnet Theatre stage, no cable channels or streaming services required.
The play is a sequel to Cygnet’s 2018 THE LAST WIFE by Kate Hennig, about the final years of Henry VIII, his sixth wife Catherine Parr, his children Edward, Mary, and Elizabeth, and the man Parr loved before Henry demanded her hand in marriage, courtier Thomas Seymour. After Henry died, Parr married Seymour, and then she took in Princess Elizabeth to give her a life befitting her rank as daughter to a King.
As THE VIRGIN TRIAL opens we find the pieces in this royal chess board have shifted again- Parr has died in child birth, Thomas Seymour (Steven Lone) has been arrested, and Elizabeth (Olivia Hodson) finds herself under interrogation as a potential co-conspirator to kill her brother Edward, the current King of England.
Though Elizabeth is only 15, and Thom is 40, the interrogators Ted (Tom Stephenson) who is also Thom’s brother, and Eleanor (Lisel Gorell-Getz) have no hesitation pushing their theories of what was really going on between the pair, to find out who was the real mastermind, and guilty party to this treasonous plot.
Between interrogation scenes there are flashbacks that serve to show how Elizabeth and Thom’s characters and relationship evolved over time. True, Seymour wanted to be more than the head of the Royal Navy, but is Elizabeth old enough to be capable of this kind of intrigue as well?
Interrogator Ted starts out as the jovial, and warm uncle, he’s the good cop to Eleanor’s cold and aggressive bad cop. Though as the play goes on Ted’s cuddly exterior is shown to hide a viciousness that more than matches Eleanor’s. Elizabeth’s governess Ashley ( Monique Gaffney) and accountant Perry (Wil Bethmann) are subjected to increasingly brutal interrogation techniques as they are not protected by their rank from Ted and Eleanor’s methods of inquisition.
Elizabeth’s older sister Mary (Brittney M. Cladwell) finds herself unwillingly pulled into the events as well when she tries to show sisterly support to Elizabeth.
While the play is not a trial of judge and jury, this situation is based on actual circumstances that the teenage Elizabeth I found herself in after her father’s death. (This is where I could insert all the historical facts of the situation but I am not going to do so – you’re welcome)
Stephenson is excellent as the two faced interrogator and is matched by the cold brutality of Gorell-Getz as Eleanor. Lone’s Thom is both a seductive social climber and a brilliant strategist, but as he starts to lose control of all the threads in the plot his behavior also starts to unravel.
Mary wishes she was half as fierce and commanding as Brittney M. Caldwell makes this character. While Gaffney and Bethmann are fiercely loyal and sympathetic as Elizabeth’s loyal companions enduring increasingly brutal circumstances.
As strong as this ensemble is the play belongs to the fantastic Hodson as Elizabeth. The entire play hinges on the fact that Elizabeth teeters on that cusp from a young girl to womanhood. From her court gown to her sparkly shoes, her girlish voices to her calculating turns of phrase, Hodson displays the constant shifting and calculating Elizabeth does to get what she needs from each situation.
When Hodson’s Elizabeth says “I like to play games” in response to an inquiry is both a simple girlish response and a steely warning of what is yet to come.
Director Rob Lufty keeps this political thriller’s momentum and tension building as the audience and the interrogators try to figure out who is innocent or guilty. His direction builds upon Hennig’s play which challenges the audience to try to make that decision through all of this carefully calculated intrigue.
Scenic design by Elizabeth Puksto and costume design by Veronica Murphy blend historic fact with the anachronistic more modern locations, and thriller sensibility. The outfit when Elizabeth makes a power move is a perfect representation of the reputation, and persona she will soon adopt.
While Seymour’s treason is a historical fact, THE VIRGIN TRIAL plays with the undercurrent of how society both then and now, underestimates and villainizes teenage girls as they navigate a predatory world that has no compunction sacrificing innocence at the girl’s expense.
THE VIRGIN TRIAL is playing at Cygnet Theatre through October 6th. For ticket and show time information go to www.cygnettheatre.com