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Review of The Herbal Bed at Royal & Derngate (Royal), Northampton

2016 is the four hundredth anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare and as expected there is a veritable cavalcade of his works heading to the stage. However for my second encounter with the bard this year, I was once again presented with a play revolving around his family rather than his own work. Where Shaxpeare's Box was an all out comedy linked with Shakespeare's granddaughter, the much more serious affair of The Herbal Bed tells a story revolving around his daughter, Susanna Hall.

Opening the 2016 season of Made In Northampton productions, The Herbal Bed is directed by the Royal & Derngate artistic director James Dacre. Once again his mark is present on the stage as set changes are smooth and clean, and dramatic moments are given wonderful audio edges from Becky Smith on sound design. I was particularly fascinated by the wonderful echo that resonated during the second act scenes in court, they must surely created? There are also some gorgeous light fades from lighting designer Malcolm Rippeth which cleverly bridge the scenes. The set from Jonathan Fensom is an absolute feast for the eyes, effortlessly moving between the very occasional location changes, but providing a wonderfully realistic and glorious herbal garden as our main set. It does however make an amazing switch from the remarkably intimate garden into the magnificently grandiose location of the cathedral with the mere gliding of walls.

Gracing this set is a top notch cast all giving wonderful heartfelt performances, not least from Emma Lowndes as the seemingly very fragile, and very wronged(?) Susanna Hall. It is a gentle, subtle performance which does through Peter Whelan's lovely script allow the audience room for manoeuvre over motives. We are given enough evidence from what we see that Susanna clearly lies about somethings, but left to ponder whether all the allegations are true. Making these allegations is Jack Lane played with wonderful relish by Matt Whitchurch. He is a quite ruthless and unlikeable character, that for some unknown reason I couldn't help but like.

The other person potentially wronged by Lane's accusations is Rafe Smith played by Philip Correia. This was the character I had the most difficulty getting a grip on his motives. Correia plays the part in a light way which leaves via Whelan's script us almost none the wiser. It is clear that he was a bit a lad in the past and still has intent to Susanna, but I never felt sure how far he would be willing to go, or more importantly how far he had already gone previously. That scene late night in the garden is the only moment where it is all clear cut, but it still makes us wonder what may have occurred before.

One character you can easily like is Charlotte Wakefield's Hester Fletcher. Maid to the Hall family, she is unwittingly drawn into the events and Wakefield manages to convey the obvious distress this brings in a delightful way. She is a lovely and highly watchable performer as she was in last years Oklahoma! She also has one of the very best lines of the play at the end of the second scene of act two. Also an absolutely delight to see again was the giant looming figure of Michael Mears as the sinister sounding vicar-general Barnabus Goche. Mears was a remarkable highlight for me in A Tale Of Two Cities, the first play I saw in my theatre epiphany two years ago and he is perhaps even better here.

Perhaps the best performance though, but in a tremendously don't look at me way was Jonathan
Guy Lewis as physician John Hall. Captivating in every scene, but not stealing the limelight. He builds the character in such a way that you believe his motives, distress and behaviour at all times and brings one of the softest most believable performances I have seen in the Made In Northampton plays to date.

Whelan's play is a fascinating piece, well written with believable characters. It is true at times, especially in the second half, where the path of the story might shift into something a modern audience may have trouble with. Most especially when it comes to the church court, where the audience has to fully appreciate the time that this is set to fully believe events.

However without doubt this is another victory for the Made In Northampton brand and one that with a tour extending into May, gets the chance to spread the wonder further afield. A top notch cast with impressive stage work culminates in forming a play that can only come highly recommended.

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Performance reviewed: Tuesday 16th February, 2016 at the Royal & Derngate (Royal), Northampton.

The Herbal Bed runs at the Royal & Derngate until Saturday 27th February, 2016 before touring until May.
Details of the tour can be found here: http://www.ett.org.uk/productions/85/the-herbal-bed

For further details visit the Royal & Derngate website at http://www.royalandderngate.co.uk/


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