Review: Four Thieves Vinegar at Barons Court Theatre

Guest review by Ross McGregor

Four Thieves Vinegar is a new play by Christine Foster, directed by Adam Bambrough for The 42nd Theatre Company at Barons Court Theatre. At times with the Fringe Theatre industry, grand ideas take place in tiny cramped arenas, but here we have a perfect unison of play and venue in that the subterranean vault-like gloom of the Baron’s Court Theatre is transformed into a 17th century prison cell and this genius venue choice complements the aesthetic of the tale perfectly. The most striking element of this production is its design. Sally Hardcastle and Will Alder deserve the highest of praise for their work on this production, as they have elevated it to something worthy of the West End. The lighting, props, costume and set decoration are simply flawless, creating a perfect, captivating world in which the actors can play in. From tiny details of amber window effects, to the dirt underneath the actors’ fingernails, it’s all done with an attention to detail that is staggering.

The plot revolves around three inmates of Newgate prison and their kindly jailer, in the time of the Black Death. The possibility of a cure is understandably on everyone’s minds, and fearful superstition of God’s wrath is heavy in the air, thicker than vinegar fumes and hot brick ash. Matthias Richards, played with grace and sincerity by Nick Howard-Brown, is an impoverished alchemist trying to cure the plague before time runs out. Kate Huntsman is a fiery ball of energy and pathos as Jennet Flyte, Richards’ romantic interest, an innocent young maid who is awaiting the noose once her baby is delivered. Hannah Jeakes is the third prisoner – a world-weary nurse, played with gravel-voiced anarchic glee by Pip Henderson. Simon Holt is their keeper, with Bruce Kitchener as the slow plodding but well-meaning jailer, the lesser of the four roles but one he absolutely nails the timing for, and gets the most laughs out of an understandably grim subject matter.

The plot is packed full of different strands, but without spoiling anything too badly, no one is quite who they say they are, and as the play goes on, and the Black Death closes in around them, each character must make their peace with their own personal inconvenient truth.

This production has the makings of something truly outstanding, but unfortunately the ratio of gold to liquid in the alchemy of the show’s different elements is off, and as it stands, they are failing to fully dissolve together. The biggest culprit is unfortunately the writing. There are simply too many storylines for a 90-minute play, and it’s down to the director and writer to now work out which to keep and which to cut, if the show is to have a future revival. The plague plot is present throughout but it’s often side-lined by bickering and innuendo that tire after a while. Huntsman and Howard-Brown have the most to do in terms of characterisation and arcs, and they’re the glue that hold the production together. Huntsman is perhaps the most watchable and fully-formed in terms of her performance, claiming the stage like a little tear-stained imp, whilst giving a clear intention with every single line she’s given, whilst Howard-Brown gives his best Hamlet The Science Nerd, injecting much-needed wide-eyed mania bordering deliciously on obsession. You’re never quite sure if Richards is telling the truth about claiming to have discovered a cure, and Howard-Brown plays this with mastery and a delicate toying with the text. Kitchener has a paternal heaviness that is kindly, genial and reassuring – a lighter moment in amongst the darkness, and much needed.

Four Thieves Vinegar is an interesting idea, that could do with being longer, slower, and more precise in its plotting and pacing. The director needs to be clearer about the placing of the different narrative elements, and the cast need a script that matches their abilities, and one that isn’t so overwritten. And somebody at the Almeida needs to hire the show’s designers immediately.

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