“Gunter” at Royal Court Theatre Upstairs

Simon Jenner in west London
8 April 2024

This is the purest theatre I’ve seen at the Royal Court in a long time. Three women sing a cappella, hauntingly. A historian blinks: “Firstly, I’m a bit surprised to be standing on stage at the Royal Court Theatre.” This isn’t entirely untrue. Dirty Hare company’s Gunter, co-created by historian, lyricist, and composer Lydia Higman, Julia Grogan, and Rachel Lemon who also directs, was acclaimed at Edinburgh last August, and plays Upstairs till 25 April.


Julia Grogan.
Photo credit: Alex Brenner.


The audience are arranged on three sides. Higman uses a mic, reinforcing her non-actor role. We’re asked to close our eyes and “all picture a witch”. A screen against which the actors play has already been projecting violent male brawls: the Ashbourne Shrovetide football match. The modern parallel is clear if a little forced. Some mud is emptied onto Anna Orton’s design of a pristine papered floor, white as the screen: four women wear white. Sometimes they sport bear or swan masks.

A football and a scuffle; actors turn muddy. A balloon, the eponymous Gunter’s ego, is pumped up and explodes. Amy Daniels’ lighting does duty for daylight and dungeons, a dark for sparklers to fizzle in. The screen is used to caption historical events and reinforce on-stage actions.

There is a lengthy text preface by the three co-creators discussing their process. It turns on the historical case of Brian Gunter, who in 1604–6 embroils his afflicted daughter Anne (born 1584) in accusing Elizabeth Gregory of witchcraft after his having murdered her two sons by banging their heads together at a football match. As the richest man in the village of North Moreton – a few miles east of Didcot near Oxford – he’s let off. He always is. Till now. Anne suffers violent spasms and screams uncontrollably: she must be possessed, or “bewitched”.

Higman helms her own discipline as she narrates; she’s also at the drums all evening. Hannah Jarrett-Scott, mainly in the role of Gunter, plays a muted trumpet, and Norah Lopez Holden, mostly Anne, keyboards. Grogan occasionally on washboard is first bereaved mother Elizabeth Gregory and later Thomas Hinton MP, rational academic and exposer of fraud. In all the ensemble invoke 20 characters, including a “cunning woman” when the physician throws up their hands in confusion over Anne’s malady. Despite the limited acoustic Roly Botha’s sound arrangement is punchy, not overwhelming.

There are now three women on trial to be hanged at the Oxford assizes. Lopez Holden’s spasms and vomiting nails are spectacular and at one point she voids what looks like a small bat. When less spasmed Anne gyrates: it shifts into the erotic. Though who would forcibly sexualize a young woman – in 1604 – to such extremes?


Hannah Jarrett-Scott, Julia Grogan, Norah Lopez Holden.
Photo credit: Alex Brenner.


The multi-roling company settle into primary roles. Grogan’s vengeful Elizabeth Gregory dons a Stetson, or returns as steely uncorruptible academic Hinton, known to Gunter; but not as Gunter thinks he knows him. Ultimately Gunter overreaches and though two court ladies both called Joan take a libidinous fancy to him, it’s witch-burner-general King James I Gunter has to beware. Now it’s Gunter and Anne on trial. Will he sacrifice Anne, or will she fight back?

The foregoing only hints at the sheer theatricality, writhing, screams (from Lopez Holden’s Anne), use of audience space, including tossing footballs back and forth to audience members with high-fives thrown in, in a blast of Fringe spirit. But with actors popping up above the audience, once above the projection screen with a trumpet, and sliding along a messy floor, it pushes even these conventions. Yet it’s ravishingly blocked as we seamlessly move from mess to mesmeric singing, acting, and storytelling.

As Higman states, there are lacunae in these re-animated records; our collective imagination has to be called on. Themes Gunter throws up – coercion, abuse, enforced drug-taking, false witness, and sheer fraud – are perennials to set against what we think witchcraft is. Ultimately, it’s an act of deconstruction and empathy. Unravel this and you might get answers to every accusation of witchcraft brought, then and – in its modern form – now. Even if Anne’s levitation is “witnessed”.

Apart from Holden’s plangent Anne (and pop-up Judge), the three actors are vibrant: Grogan in her dual role as Gregory and Hinton, hard-bitten in both. She and Jarrett-Scott enjoy rollicking round as the two lustful Joans, and the latter’s burling Gunter leaves a genuinely unpleasant tang. Higman inhabits that faintly goofy-enthusiastic historian air, almost sending herself up on occasion, but has crafted a memorable earworm of a melody in her lyric that recurs: “Oh where the bad man sleeps / Oh Lord he’s bigger than me” which reverberates through the show. Anne’s eternal refrain, it’s good enough to sustain repeats, and there’s another lyric to it. One wholly different song was cut.

Seventy minutes straight through, Gunter – spattered and shouted, sung and speculated over – is theatre of raw precision. I’ve not seen the Upstairs erupt in a spontaneous standing ovation before. Outstanding.