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FringeReview UK 2024

The Bounds

Royal Court Theatre and Live Theatre

Genre: Dark Comedy, Drama, Historical, Live Music, Mainstream Theatre, New Writing, Short Plays, Theatre

Venue: Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs


Low Down

“It’s all still to play for. God hasn’t played his hand yet.” Whitsuntide 1553. A man and woman stand miles behind their defence lines and sing. Transferring from Newcastle, Stewart Pringle’s The Bounds at the Royal Court Upstairs is directed by Live Theatre’s Jack McNamara till July 13th.

As it stands, this is a play with greatness seeded in it.


Written by Stewart Pringle, Directed by Jack McNamara, Set Design Verity Quinn and Lighting Design Drummond Orr, Sound Designer Matthew Tuckey, Song Writer Jayne Dent, Costumer Supervisor Lou Duffy, Movement Director & Fight Director Alicia Meehan

Technician Taylor Howie, Production Manager Drummond Orr, Stage Manager Craig Davidson, DSM Chloe Ribbens, Producer J D Stewart Casting Director Verity Naughton CDG, Audition Support Becky Morris, Prosthetic Design Creation Patrycja Nowacka

Till July 13th


“It’s all still to play for. God hasn’t played his hand yet.” Whitsuntide 1553. A man and woman stand miles behind their defence lines and sing. Transferring from Newcastle, Stewart Pringle’s The Bounds at the Royal Court Upstairs is directed by Live Theatre’s Jack McNamara till July 13th.

Two entire Northumberland villages are playing football over several days and miles in the last year of Edward VI’s reign. The golden age of Tudor football is a game when death can happen. At Allendale’s desolate western boundary, Percy (Ryan Nolan) and Rowan (Lauren Waine) bicker and bant about eternally losing to Catton; indeed losing players to drowning and brain-rammed noses.

It might seem familiar. Two months ago Gunter, featuring death at football in 1604, exploded in this space. The Bounds though is broodingly set in one patch, anchored in Verity Quinn’s earthen mound tufted with grass and the curious moment of a trap door. Jayne Dent’s raucously joyous songs alternate with Matthew Tuckey’s sound design: screechy, haunted and oracular. It’s a place where Drummond Orr’s lighting isn’t afraid of the dark.

“If we were any further away we’d be in the next county.” This pair wouldn’t make a substitute bench in a team of Baldricks. Their only trippings-up are virtuoso pranks on each other. The village dumps them where nothing happens, twice: half-time is nightfall.

Percy’s a mix of simple prejudice and class resentment, unfiltered by reflection, telegraphed by Nolan in squinty sneers. And guilt over not intervening when Rowan’s horrifically “scolded” for not accepting suitors.

Unlike Percy she’s sharp, cynical, skirling and inventive. Waine’s energy transfixes in prophesy-studded arcs. There’s also two-headed calves, accusations and portents. The rational veil’s thinning.

Waine’s unfailingly various ways with put-downs are met with Nolan’s surly growls and near-whimpers when reminded of what he didn’t do. The Bounds’ first third is a perpetual kickabout of wit (something these two could shoot penalties for) and the first half a delight dribbling the plot nowhere.

It doesn’t matter: Pringle’s dialogue fizzes and powers two memorable characters though you could imagine the whole on radio. Whatever McNamara – and fight/movement director Alicia Meehan – do, it’s a static 90 minutes: varied with exits as each go off to see what’s occurring, and return with nothing.

The joy of Pringle’s language – almost a different way of thinking from his Papatango-winning Trestle – is melding early modern dialect with fresh demotic, gifting both locals equal resource. It holds linguistically from start to finish and underscores how alive this drama is, and will remain.

Of the team-captain Rowan sneers “his drunk baldy little head flattened like windfall” following with “shite” as a verb. Or Percy’s “frigging off the chodes of farmhands” rebuking Rowan, never a safe option. The exuberance of “It’s tactical” and riposte “It’s doltish” or “let’s get reamed by some farmers” mixes locality, early modern and contemporary slang with a delight in game terms and a hoodwink at the audience.

Both linguistically and to stop them discovering new shoes for Estragon, ever-smiling Sam (Soroosh Lavasani) sidles up to confirm Rowan’s point that they’re miles from action. Which mysteriously suits him as he determines to stay. That’s despite being richly-attired, down from Oxford, or once, Cambridge. Instantly “Fat Sam” to Percy, Sam’s smile looks positively witchy enough to earn Percy’s hostility. He’s lyrically distinct too. There’s a high-point as Lavasani raptly recalls winter apples “like a horse chestnut in glass.”

Sam’s mission though does come from the world Rowan cites earlier, of kings and queens, and the way, as she later puts it: “It starts from London… like a stone tossed in a millpond.”

That’s underscored by a disturbing night visit when only Percy’s awake, of a fourth character. The role of slightly more than Godot-esque ‘Boy’ Robert “beating the bounds” for his father with a birch is shared by Wilbur Conabeare and Harry Weston (giving a memorably knowing performance on this occasion). His father’s message upends identities and heralds not so much enclosure as a boundary commission on acid.

The Bounds signposts a moment when boundaries dissolve, whether in football, territory, the wild switchbacks of religion or even gender roles – with Rowan’s graphically-described treatment. The helplessness of all three characters – even Sam – before tectonic shifts and sheer caprice, is underscored. And reactions to being found out as helpless can be catastrophic.

Though Rowan’s full of foreboding as to Percy’s nature when perplexed, Sam has propositions when alone with him. The history we know inheres on tufts of grass and trapdoors. Being 1553, a year of major upheavals, the way one danger is handled doesn’t quite ring true. Edward VI’s reign is brutally intolerant but he’s palpably dying.

That in itself can work, though Pringle, ardent for some desperate relevance, amps up drama and throws in themes. It might be better to let the dialogue paint it all. Percy’s “I thought the war was over” is answered by ever-knowing Rowan: “You weren’t born after the wars, you were born between them. The wars are always coming.”

Though the rehearsal sleeked back some excesses still in the text (and a whole Sussex-shaming passage), this rug-pulling is unnecessary. E.V. Crowe did it in her 2016 The Sewing Group: but being Crowe it came with a remorseless logic, even if you feel faintly cheated.

Happily, The Bounds ends with a jump back to where it should be, and the language at least holds. As do Rowan and Percy: all three actors stamp their roles with a distinction marking a more finished work. As it stands, this is a play with greatness seeded in it. But it needs a rewritten last quarter. If contemporary classics like Cyprus Avenue and {BLANK} can go through second editions, The Bounds deserves one.