Heaven Burns @ Assembly Roxy

A witch-finder goes hunting, but all is very much not as it seems in this historical three-hander

Review by Jon Stapley | 17 Aug 2018

In the height of the Scottish witch trials in the 17th century, a practice known as ‘witch-pricking’ grew in prominence. It was quite literally the act of pricking a suspected witch with a needle, with the aim of finding the ‘witch’s mark’ on their skin where they would feel no pain. If such a spot was found, the suspect was presumed guilty. This farcical practice caused the deaths of thousands of women and men, an outcome not unconnected to the fact that witch-finders were paid handsomely per ‘witch’ they rooted out.

One particular witch-finder has lingered in history more than the rest. He was known as John Dixon (or Dickson, accounts vary), but his real name was Christian Caddell, and he was, in fact, a she.

This is the subject of Jen McGregor’s play Heaven Burns. Set in Morayshire in 1662, It imagines a meeting between three people from history who may well have met at some point – Caddell, the real John Dixon and a young woman named Isobel Gowdie, who would go on to gain historical notoriety for being one of the few people to confess to witchcraft voluntarily.

While it’s a genuinely fascinating subject and a fantastic idea for a play, it’s a difficult piece to settle into. Once we understand the setup there’s a good amount of tension wrung out of the secrets and lies between the three characters, but this gets resolved rather early and thereafter the play feels a little baggy for a while before things pick up again. Isobel is also rather shortchanged – though she’s deftly played by Marion Geoffray, her late-stage transformation feels underserved and underdeveloped by what’s come before.

Heaven Burns, Assembly Roxy (Downstairs), Aug 2-27, 14:35, £8-11

Scroll on to read more of The Skinny's 2018 Edinburgh Fringe theatre reviews; click here for a round-up of all the best reviews from this year's comedy and theatre programmes