Barons Court Theatre, London – until 26 March 2017
Guest reviewer: Liz Dyer
The Black Death is one of those subjects you learn about at school, but how many of us have really thought about what it would have been like to live through? In Four Thieves Vinegar, Christine Foster and director Adam Bambrough of The 42nd Theatre Company transport us to a grimy cell in Newgate Prison, which has ironically come to represent one of the few places to offer freedom from the plague – for now, at least…
As the situation outside the prison walls worsens, the cell’s three prisoners and their jailer grow increasingly desperate to find a cure, whilst also dealing with their own personal dramas in a plot that twists and turns at sometimes quite dizzying speed. Will any of them make it out of the cell – and the city – alive?
Tales of plague-ridden London were Christine Foster’s inspiration to write the play, so it’s no surprise that this is where the story’s strongest. Because we never leave the cell, we – like the prisoners – have to rely on infrequent reports from outside as and when they come; this not only reveals the ever-increasing scale of the epidemic, but also means the characters can discuss what’s going on at some length without it sounding unnatural. And it’s all really interesting (if slightly macabre); I actually think this would be a great play for a school party to watch, because it really puts all those numbers you hear in class into some perspective, and makes you consider the true impact of such a deadly plague.
But it’s not just the Black Death our characters have to deal with – they all have their own personal issues going on too, although we don’t necessarily get into these as much as we could because the play necessarily devotes so much time to discussing the progress of the plague. Nick Howard-Brown’s Matthias is an alchemist who’s spent all his money trying to find a cure for the disease, though it’s never totally clear if his intentions are altruistic or selfish, or a bit of both. Bruce Kitchener’s amiable jailer Simon has a daughter on the other side of the world that he longs to see again, and there’s a big secret between the pregnant Jennet (Kate Huntsman) and nurse Hannah (Pip Henderson) that only really starts to be revealed about halfway through, and then doesn’t have a lot of time to develop.
These backstories fulfil an important purpose – without them the plot would just be four people sat in a cell waiting for the plague to kill them off – but could do with fleshing out a bit; I’d happily have stayed an extra half an hour to really get to the bottom of what’s motivating everyone to behave as they do. The cast do a great job of making what are on paper quite unsavoury characters likeable and sympathetic enough that we genuinely want them to survive, with Pip Henderson’s sharp-tongued Hannah a particular favourite of mine.
The Barons Court Theatre could hardly be a more appropriate setting for this play, with its cramped space and low, arched ceilings – and the combined efforts of Sally Hardcastle (set and costumes) and Will Alder (sound and lighting) transform the production into something truly special. It’s murky and filthy – at one point I was sure I could even smell the pungent aroma of disease and unwashed bodies – and really does feel like walking into an underground dungeon, with the sounds of prison and city life outside the door gradually fading as the weeks pass and the plague takes hold.
Four Thieves Vinegar is an impressive debut from both Christine Foster and The 42nd Theatre Company, painting an authentic picture of an episode from history most of us rarely give much thought to. I’d love to get to know the characters a little better, but nonetheless came away feeling thoroughly entertained – and educated.