"It's a Plague Out There!"
by Jim Kelly for remotegoat on 15/03/17

Matthias, Jennet, Hannah and Simon are waiting out the great plague of 1665 in the close quarters of a debtor's cell in Newgate Prison. Alchemist Matthias is convinced he has a cure for the disease. Pregnant Jennet, facing execution for robbing a corpse, is hiding a secret and seems to have some connection with bitter nurse Hannah, who herself has been imprisoned for slandering a quack doctor. Gaoler Simon, the only character with firsthand experience of the epidemic, is insistent the prisoners maintain a smoky fire in the cell to ward off the disease.

Christine Foster's debut play is rich in period detail, both in its references and idiom (efforts well supported by Sally Hardcastle's carefully dressed set and costumes, making the most on the limited space offered by the Baron's Court theatre). The ensemble cast are similarly well matched, Pip Henderson's acerbic turn as nurse who doesn't suffer fools the pick on the evening I attended, while Adam Barbrough's direction keeps the play moving even at the times when the script, dwelling on one MacGuffin too many, tips towards the languorous.

While the sense of jeopardy is certainly not as persistent as it could be - the characters ultimately too pleasant to seem like real threats to another and the plague itself only really encroaching on the plot in the latter stages - the ambition of Foster's play is still impressive. As an effort to evoke a world, indeed an underworld, whose essence, given the limited number of contemporary accounts can only really be guessed at, it is largely successful. Certainly the play captures the sense of surreal strangeness provoked by Foster's cited inspiration for her work: the piquant detail that the plague was so devastating all of London's prisoners were released as no jailers had been left alive in the city. While Foster's future work will be worth watching out for, the play also justifies the 42nd Theatre Company tough self-imposed mission of producing exclusively pieces by new writers.

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