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.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Interview: Adam Bambrough, Four Thieves’ Vinegar

Four Thieves’ Vinegar is a character driven piece of new writing, set in London during the plague of 1665, which explores the behaviour of ordinary people in times of disaster,” says Adam Bambrough, Artistic Director of The 42nd Theatre Company. The play, written by Christine Foster, opens next month at the Barons Court Theatre and is the company’s debut production.

I set up The 42nd Theatre Company as I wanted to be involved in the creative process from the ground up,” explains Adam. “I was a theatre actor for years and grew tired of working for companies who used their actors as pawns, rather than assistant story-tellers, so moved into directing with the aim of being more creative. This company was meant to be a side project in-between directing published plays elsewhere, but it has evolved into so much more.

“Our underlying ambition is to become the leading theatre company for unproduced writers and emerging artists in the UK. We’re a long, long way from achieving that, but hopefully, this production will be the first step along that path.”


Since being established in 2013, Adam and the team have received over 2,000 plays, but Christine Foster’s first professional full-length play stood out from the crowd. “We work with writers who’ve never had their work produced before, so most plays that we receive are a long way from being ready for the stage – but we read every submission that we receive in full, looking for signs of an interesting story, told with relatable characters and memorable moments. 

“Even in the first draft, Four Thieves’ Vinegar had those qualities, more so than any of the other submissions that we read. There was a story that immediately interested me, characters who I connected with and moments that I could imagine audiences going to bed at night thinking about. If there’s one word I’d like people to use after seeing this show, it’s ‘relatable’.”

Four Thieves’ Vinegar follows alchemist Matthias, who’s been thrown in jail and must enlist the dubious help of his cellmates Hannah and Jennet to make a cure for the Black Death. But even though it’s set in 1665, the story is still very relevant to our lives today. “The play examines the human spirit, the most connectable theme of all,” says Adam. “Every one of us is faced with circumstances at some point in our lives that we do not know how we will react to until we are faced by them, whatever the scale – and the parallels to modern life can be found all over the world, be it in the current migration crisis or the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa a few years ago.”

As well as their passion for supporting new writers, The 42nd Theatre Company are also committed to fair wages for the artists they work with, and to equal representation for women. “Starting a new theatre company is the perfect opportunity to remodel the way things are done and a lot of our core principles came from my experiences as an actor – and, to a lesser extent, as a director for hire,” explains Adam. “I am a firm believer that artists should be treated with respect from the outset and paid for their work, which is why we are a proud supporter of Equity’s Professionally Made Professionally Paid campaign. There should be opportunities for new voices to be heard in theatre, as there is so much potential out there, it just needs to be nurtured. 

“There are also some principles that stem from my personal life. I have a three-year-old daughter and I often wonder what the theatre landscape will look like for her when she is older. I want her to be treated as fairly and equally as any man, which led me to commit to ensuring that at least half of the cast and creative team on our every production, including Four Thieves’ Vinegar, will be women. There really should be equally representation and opportunity for all in theatre, regardless of gender, race or social background.”

Four Thieves’ Vinegar is at the Barons Court Theatre from 8th-26th March.