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Brighton Fringe 2019

Four Thieves Vinegar

Four Tails Theatre Company

Genre: Dark Comedy, Drama, Theatre

Venue: The Rialto Theatre


Low Down

Directed by Margot Jobbins, for Four Tails Theatre Company at the Rialto, Tom Jobbins’s design, lighting and technical support utilise the Rialto space. On May 5-6, 30th– June 2nd.


An apothecary chalks circles in a corner, a young woman’s ushered in by a kindly man with keys, and soon after a skirling nurse arrives to determine how far gone the girl is. Welcome to Newgate Prison, 1665. The height of the Plague Year.


Four Thieves Vinegar is a Christine Foster’s consummate black comedy about the black death; not the 1348 but the second greatest outbreak mainly confined to London, and famous village of Eyam, subject and title of Matt Hartley’s Globe debut last year.


Here’s a revival worth waiting for since its London premiere.. Directed by Margot Jobbins, for Four Tails Theatre Company at the Rialto, it also features Jobbins as the Gaoler Holt, the smallest role.


The title’s based on a truth that thieves worked out that vinegar repels the plague – the fleas, though they didn’t know it – to allow them to rob from the plague-consumed dead. There’s a power of four here too.

The play finds its four characters – three prisoners and their jailer – in one of the few places currently untouched by the disease rampaging throughout the land. Tom Jobbins’s design, lighting, sound design and technical support uses the Rialto space – Richards almost exclusively stage right scrawling on the wings, a barrel of vinegar and various items including a period pistol use as much of the space as practicable, though inevitably movement’s confined. It’s supplied by the switchbacks and volte-faces plot and actors supply.

Poor Jennet Flyte – Char Brockes – is the first to invade Richards’ space. It’s a winning performance of fearful containment, initially a little shrill-edged, but settles down and Brockes has the entire run to develop. Particularly impressive is Brockes’ tenderness as more layers fall away during the latter half and we see Brockes as Flyte radiate a tremulous nobility.

Innocent of any real wrongdoing, as far as we see, Flyte’s frightened, clearly never seen the inside of a prison; more than can be said for nurse Hannah Jeakes played by the consummate Sorcha Brooks. she and Holt throw on more vinegar to create a steam bath shield. Wear it and you’re safe.

Their attention’s anchored by the one prisoner already in the cell, said apothecary Liam Murray Scott’s Matthias Richards (aka the Alchemist). Richards believes he’s found a cure for the plague and implores his fellow inmates to help him make it. But to do that they’ll need gold, and to get that they’ll need to make good use of the only resources at their disposal: sex, wit and lies. Richards, a man obsessed to the extent that he’s relatively oblivious to Flyte, gradually warms to Jeakes’ persuading her to tell her story, as Jeakes cheerfully tells hers. Still the scene circles around Richards’ offering a way out. Not the tried and tested vinegar. But that medicinal compound dissolving gold.

Scott draws the right mix of height, hauteur and suggestion of nervous arrogance to seem ideally cast as Richards. Initially rather vehement and a little hectoring in his steaming tower, he slowly finds a dishevelled eloquence, gratitude, fatalism and finally warmth, particularly towards Brockes’ Flyte who quixotically kisses him so they’ll live or die together.

But there’s many twists to undergo: not least bulletins from the front outside as gunshot and initially bells (till silenced) toll out the dead and finally absolve the living. Debtors are free to go. Soon everyone is, but do they wish to? In the mean time Richards leaves to procure the one missing ingredient, but instead of one day, he’s away three weeks. And both Jeakes and Flyte, who seem to know each other, harbour secrets from both Richards and each other.

Director Jobbins makes a stronger impression as part read-in than several I’ve seen, even in 2015 at the Globe. Allowing for trans-gendering the role at short notice (as Foster announces at the start), it doesn’t distract at all and adds some pathos.

Brookes holds this performance together. Her consummate listening to every nuance, her marriage of whiplash tongue to cunning snatch, her deceptive gentling and even more deceptive hard-heartedness reveals a character and actor of depth and moment. There are too in this black comedy moments of laughing tragedy. These are nearly all Jeakes’ moments and Brooks holds the precise distance between bleak fatalism and stoical guffaw. Tenderness is a luxury, perhaps an air that kills. She still inhales it.

Quite what happens on Richards’ return and the switchbacks of plot is something to see: it’s fiendishly funny, heartbreaking, and finally cathartic in the real sense. It’s a production yet to come into its force – stage movement’s necessarily a little restricted – but towards the end the acting of Scott, Brockes and especially Brooks leave little to be desired; and show the play’s stretch. For the play and Brooks particularly it’s a must-see.