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The Welkin is a new play by Lucy Kirkwood . Photograph: Supplied. - Credit: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

TIM WALKER reflects on the National Theatre’s sprawling, challenging, and at times scintillating, new play.

A play begins life with a reading, and, certainly so far as commercial theatre is concerned, this can be a brutal experience. Actors give their time for nominal fees on the basis that it may or may not ever get to be staged. The writer – along with the director and cast and potential backers – assemble and experience the words raw. Lines that had seemed magnificent on paper can sound listless and flat in the mouths of the actors. Others can take on a life of their own.

When finally it’s over, there can be a deafening silence. Sometimes there’s applause. It’s the writer put on trial, and, generally speaking, it makes it clear to all concerned if a play is going to work or not.

I can only wonder about the first reading of Lucy Kirkwood’s new play, The Welkin. It’s a vast, sprawling, unwieldy piece of writing that takes almost three hours to perform. It’s set on the borders of Norfolk and Suffolk in 1759 and focuses on a jury of 12 matrons charged by a judge with the task of deciding if a woman convicted of murder is pregnant. The law in 18th century England regarded as sacrosanct the rights of unborn babies.

It’s essentially a one idea show – 12 Angry Women – and my assumption is the reading must have been an awfully heavy-going experience. I can’t imagine in the commercial theatre anyone would have been minded to invest a penny in it and that would have been that. Of course this is not how things work at the National. They know that even the most boring scripts can sometimes be made into something special with a great director, a fine cast and a set and costume designer with flair. Sometimes one gets the impression the National goes for plays of the kind Kirkwood has written precisely because they like a challenge.

The fledgling playwright certainly got lucky that James Macdonald was picked to direct and Bunny Christie put in charge of making it look good. Most of the superb cast, too, led by Maxine Peake, as the one juror with a conscience, could make the words of the London telephone directory seem like scintillating theatre.

Peake is on great form and there’s a brief, scene-stealing performance, too, from Laurence Ubong Williams as an immaculately-dressed doctor who has to examine the accused (Ria Zmitrowicz) to see if she is with child or not.

The period setting gives it the feeling sometimes of The Crucible, and, while the impenetrable Norfolk-Suffolk accents are no doubt authentic in terms of the time and place, they often make it very hard to follow. I found myself looking at my watch a great deal. I challenge Kirkwood to offer her next play to a commercial theatre. Always a good way to stop a playwright becoming complacent.

The Welkin will be broadcast on NT Live on May 21