How do you look anew at the issues thrown up by the now overwrought and at times morally exhausting #MeToo movement? Well, why not in a play set in the English Civil War? This first full-length work by local writer Joe Matthew-Morris not only deals with a huge variety of weighty issues – including sexual politics, abuse, trauma, the independence of women, class and politics, the weight of parental expectation, war and poverty – but is impressively almost uncategorizable genre-wise. (A fellow writer said it was a cross between Sleuth and Tarantino). It’s also well-nigh impossible to flesh out the plot without bringing major spoilers and story twists into play – but, here goes…
It’s 1645 and inn keeper Willmas is grieving the loss of his wife, while trying to raise his teenage daughter Rosamund and run an inn near Chester. As the war rages outside, inside is a hot bed of lies, treachery, bluff and counter-bluff, with the arrival of oleaginous priest Thomas, played with a compelling seedy physicality by Harvey Robinson, and Jennet, a gun-toting outlaw with a chequered past – delivered with vigour and gusto by Helen Carter. Willmas’ dependable, solid- seeming character also has his own secret, while Rosamund has more behind her innocent Puritan features than first appears.
Although the backdrop to this mainly psychological thriller (with unexpected, sudden bouts of controlled violence thrown in) is the Civil War, this is not a history play – but instead, plays out discourses that are ever contemporary – including a mini-lecture on the immutable nature of class & privilege which should be taught in all schools.
Director Paul Goetzee has delivered a brisk, taut production – necessary for a highly wordy, intelligent and at times philosophising play – which veers from plot twist to revelation to plot twist but is lever less than engrossing. (I heard audience members gasp at several revelations). The tension & claustrophobia of the piece is also helped by the simple but evocative tiny one-room set: while the noise of war rages outside, always threatening to break through, the drama inside however stays on an intimate human level. With so much current calling out & counter-calling in the present climate of sexual politics, this is a play that asks you acknowledge the eternal flawed nature of human beings – and not to simply take sides or expect to encounter clear cut sympathetic characters or irredeemable villains. There is a reasoning for (most) of the bad behaviour shown or alluded to by the characters here.
For such a small cast in a confined space, the plethora of questions and issues that the play throws up is mind-blowing. No one could accuse the writer of lacking scope and ambition. This powerful and intense new work packs an intellectual and visceral punch and is definitely worth the ridiculously low £10 ticket price – and keep an eye on Matthew-Morris; if this is what he produces as a debut, well…
Reviewer: Tracy Ryan
Reviewed: 23rd June 2022
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★