It was 1665, the year of the Great Plague. A time when as many as a thousand people a day were dying in the streets of London. Matthias Richards paces his lonely cell in Newgate Prison. An invisible, tuneless drum, beats at a slow heartbeat pace.
Matthias is a man of science and he believes that he has found a cure for the Plague, but has bankrupted himself while doing it and ended up in prison for debt. His expensive antidote involves dissolving gold in a secret liquid to produce a new, seventeenth century, wonder drug called Four Thieves’ Vinegar. He wants to carry on his research but gold is in short supply in Newgate Prison.
The jailor, Simon Holt, is not unkind but is hardened by the sight of prisoners dying on a daily basis from Plague, at least those who manage to avoid the hangman’s noose. He brings into Matthias’s cell two new, unwelcome female inmates. The first is Jennet Flyte, a pregnant, seemingly innocent young woman. The second, an older woman, Hannah Jeakes, a loud, dominant professional thief. The relationship between the three is strained to say the least.
Unexpectedly, the jailer announces that all of the Newgate’s prisoners, are officially offered release by government decree, due to all of the jailers having died. This small group then needs to make a decision as to whether or not to stay in their prison cell. They decide to stay and try to survive.
When the Plague finally, inextricably makes it’s way into the cell, the need for gold becomes imperative and secrets are revealed and gold is provided. It however proves tragically futile.
The cast are uniformly excellent. Pip Henderson (Hannah Jeakes) is a highly experienced and versatile actress, with 30 years international, professional experience in film, television and on stage.
Kate Huntsman (Jennet Flyte), Bruce Kitchener (Simon Holt) and Nick Howard-Brown (Matthias Richards) are all relative newcomers to acting, having made their first professional appearances in recent years. However they are all truly talented. The future of the British stage is safe in their hands.
The play is produced and directed with great aplomb by Adam Bambrough, who manages to maintain an atmosphere of quiet optimism until the inevitable, dramatic, awful denouement.
All possible plaudits must go to the brilliant writer, Christine Foster. Not only is her writing excellent and sophisticated, but her level of research into the actual events depicted and her empathy for her characters are remarkable.
Reviewed by Graham Archer
Four Thieves’ Vinegar plays at Barron’s Court Theatre, London until 26 March 2017