By Matthew Pritchard
“The poison crown” is one of two shows put on this year under the ‘Deadhouse’ banner. It’s immersive theatre with a true crime bent, and it’s frighteningly entertaining (sorry, couldn’t resist. I won’t do any more).
Before I get into this review, I feel like I should mention that I love horror, I love true crime and I love history, so this show was already ticking a few of my boxes, but even if you’re a true crime newbie, “the poison crown” should hold broad appeal and make for part of a fun night out this Halloween.
The show is a guided tour though the trial of Louisa Collins – “the Botany Murderess”, by jury, the public, and media. Yes, it’s a story we’ve all heard before, even if you don’t know the specifics of Louisa Collins’ case (I didn’t when I went in), you get this sense of dread throughout the whole thing because you’re pretty sure you know EXACTLY where this is going. Collins (played by Jacqui Robson) was arrested for the suspected murder of her first and second husband, who both died under similar circumstances, the latter of which, was found to be through arsenic poisoning, because if there’s one thing that Agatha Christie has taught us, it is almost ALWAYS arsenic poisoning. What resulted from Collins’ arrest was a young woman thrust into a legal system made up of men who had essentially decided her guilt before she was even put on trial.
Yes, it’s... it’s a pretty depressing story. And yet, there are moments of comedy, which I know sounds weird, but they serve to make the heavier scenes all the more gut wrenching. The appearance of Collins’ daughter May (Alexandra Smith) in court for the first time is especially unsettling, also thanks to Smith’s rather harrowing portrayal of a young girl essentially being made an orphan by a 19th century legal system that doesn’t seem to care about her, save for Collins’ lawyer Mr Lusk (Chris Miller).
Writer Gina Schien’s script walks a delicate line between history documentary and courtroom drama, capturing the humanity behind the history. The cast all work well at bringing this humanity to their character work, helping to hit home the sheer nastiness of the story, communicating just how much the proverbial deck was stacked against Collins, and how helpless her situation really was.
Your tour guide (Kyla Ward) is basically the gothic equivalent of Rod Serling. She leads you through the main story beats and serves as a temporal tour guide. The best way to describe the feel of the production is it reminded me of being a kid and going to Old Sydney Town when it was still open. This does mean that there’s a certain, “ye olde renaissance faire” aesthetic to the whole thing, but again, that’s part of the fun isn’t it? And for a small, independent production, ‘Deadhouse’ uses this to its advantage.
The venue itself is almost a character. You enter through heavy wooden doors into a mortuary, before making your way through the crypt under St James Church, with low, swooping arches, and long, eerie corridors, the production uses the site to give its eerie, old Sydney tale and extra air of authenticity, making it easier to get lost in the performances around you.
Not that the performances aren’t otherwise engaging, quite the opposite. The show is excellently cast, and there were moments where I genuinely couldn’t picture seeing certain cast members as anything but denizens of 19th century Sydney. The thought of these people going backstage and checking their phones honestly weirded me out a little, that’s how much I was sucked in.
Now look, I get that if you’re not really a true crime fan or a history dweeb, shows like this might not be your cup of (hopefully not poisoned) tea. But if this kind of thing is your jam then there’s a lot to like. Plus it’s only short, coming in at around an hour ‘The Poisoned Crown’ doesn’t overstay its welcome. It sucks you in, hits you hard and then sends you on your way, probably questioning your faith in humanity. Which, again, is part of the fun, isn’t it? Don’t pretend it’s not.
So, if you’re a true crime nerd, history buff, or you’re just looking for something macabre this Halloween (I know, I know, let it go), check out “the poison crown”, it’s a ‘killer’ show (sorry, I couldn’t resist).
Image Credit: Phyllis Wong
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.