The Black Death raged through London in 1665 killing thousands in the heat of summer – only easing up when autumn fell and rains helped to cleanse the diseased city. It was the second major outbreak of Bubonic Plague which had, in the 1300s, decimated huge populations in London and other parts of England, as well as killing hundreds of thousands of people across Europe.
Christine Foster’s play, Four Thieves’ Vinegar is set in Newgate Prison during this vile period and, effectively, transports us to a time when even petty crime was punishable by death. It is a fate that awaits the cherub-faced Jennet Flyte (Kate Huntsman) who is sentenced to hang for stealing jewellery from a ‘rather healthy corpse’. Her only reprieve from the gallows is that she is pregnant but, alas, the sentence will be carried out as soon as she gives birth. She is thrown into a cell with Matthias Cornelius Richards (Nick Howard-Brown), an alchemist with altruistic passions.
Matthias, in an attempt to find a cure for the Black Death, has exhausted his funds, and is imprisoned for the crime of debt. A third inmate, the vile-tempered nurse Hannah Jeakes, (Pip Henderson) is called in to verify that, indeed, Jennet is pregnant. Jailer Simon Holt (Bruce Kitchener), the only character with access to the outside world, reports the numbers of dead and dying. These four must make do with the purifying powers of vinegar and burning embers to stave off the disease and pestilence that has already saturated the city. Life is under constant threat and there are no safe havens.
Four Thieves’ Vinegar is filled with rich ideas, playing on the themes of Sodom and Gomorrah and the coming of the plague as divine retribution for the wretched inhabitants of the city of London. However, its narrative is, at times, tedious and overly complicated. Jennet is the most engaging character. She makes us question the cause of her suffering – her sanity – which is teased out through her continual references to her father, who Hannah refers to as ‘Mad Michael and his daft daughter’. The noble Matthias’ quest for an antidote to cure the Black Death should be the central theme of the play, but somehow it becomes a relentless exercise of who holds the object – gold – a key component for the cure, further overshadowed by the bickering between Jennet and Hannah.
This is especially true of the play’s ending which winds back on itself and diminishes the importance of its own conclusion.
Four Thieves’ Vinegar, presented by The 42nd Theatre Company, is a play with great promise, but its characters need to be revisited. This is not a criticism of the actors, who did their best with the material as written. As a piece of new writing it presents us with a plethora of ideas and complications. It is the task of director /producer Adam Bambrough and playwright Christine Foster to determine if some of those complications are working against the play, rather than for it.
Review by Loretta Monaco
Four Thieves’ Vinegar,
Written by Christine Foster
Produced by The 42nd Theatre Company
Barons Court Theatre
28a Comeragh Rd, London W14 9HR
Box Office: 020 8932 4747
Play dates: 8th-26th March 2017.