Theatre Review: THE HERBAL BED – The Lowry, Salford

The Herbal Bed Photo by Mark Douet

THE HERBAL BED is an intelligent piece of theatre, full of drama, debate and old-fashioned virtues

To coincide with the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, Peter Whelan’s gripping 1996 play THE HERBAL BED has been revived in a new production directed by Royal & Derngate Artistic Director James Dacre.

Inspired by the real-life scandal involving William Shakespeare’s daughter, THE HERBAL BED tells the fictitious story of Susanna Hall, Shakespeare’s eldest daughter who is publicly accused of adultery.

The story takes place in the summer of 1613 in Stratford-upon-Avon. Shakespeare’s daughter, Susanna (Emma Lowndes), is married to the well-respected doctor John Hall (Jonathan Guy Lewis) but Hall is more interested in his work and his herb garden (hence the title) than his marriage. Desperate, lonely and yearning to be touched, Susanna lavishes her affection on local haberdasher Rafe Smith (Philip Correia) who is also locked in an unhappy marriage. But Susanna’s world is turned upside down when her husband’s cocky apprentice, Jack Lane (Matt Whitchurch), starts to make public accusations about her fidelity and her sexual health, forcing Susanna and her well-respected family to face intense public scrutiny.

Wise, witty and historically fascinating, THE HERBAL BED is a powerful thriller about love, lies and loyalty. The play imagines a situation in which scurrilous talk can cost reputations and leaves the audience questioning whether it always right to tell the truth.

The power of the play resides in the way it makes an audience continually change their feelings towards the characters. While the allegation of adultery is technically untrue, we watch as Susanna and Rafe struggle to resist temptation, looking to rationalise their clandestine actions by lying to themselves – and each other – about the path of love and the need to feel whole. Like many of Shakespeare’s works, Whelan’s clever and witty script has a poetic lyricism of its own and director James Dacre does a fantastic job of presenting a visceral, tender and wise portrait of a family in crisis.

The Herbal Bed Photo Credit Mark Douet

The play features a small but talented cast including Emma Lowndes (DOWNTOWN ABBEY, JANE EYRE) as the intelligent and complex Susanna. Lowndes’ performance is a joy to watch as she battles not only her human desires but also the social conventions which seek to repress them.

Jonathan Guy Lewis (CORONATION STREET, SOLDIER SOLDIER) impresses as the compellingly troubled John Hall, who comes to life in the second half of the play but insists that, for the sake of his medical practice, that a charade of righteousness be maintained.

Philip Correia (DOCTORS, THE HISTORY BOYS) plays a strong role as the handsome haberdasher Rafe Smith but it is Matt Whitchurch who steals the show as Jack Lane, the loudmouth and cocky trainee doctor who slides from wise-cracking apprentice to vicious and revengeful accuser.

While THE HERBAL BED certainly isn’t short of drama or emotion, the sexual chemistry between Susanna and Rafe isn’t as erotic or emotionally charged as I expected it to be. The second half of the play also runs on for longer than necessary, making the overall play feel slightly unbalanced.

That said, THE HERBAL BED is an intelligent piece of theatre full of drama, debate and old-fashioned virtues. A fascinating story about human desire, truth and compassion.

4 out of 5 stars

THE HERBAL BED runs at The Lowry until Saturday 2 April 2016.