Updated: Thursday, 5th December 2019 @ 2:39pm

Review: The Herbal Bed @ The Lowry, Salford Quays

Review: The Herbal Bed @ The Lowry, Salford Quays

| By Eddie Bisknell

The crowd gathers in anticipation. Young and old take their positions in plush red seats, in a theatre which removes all barriers between the actors and the audience.

The stage is set; we see two walls of a wooden house illuminated by two spotlights. All that is missing is the cast to bring this scene to life.

A lone silhouette appears, followed by a smaller one, a child's. As the light adapts to reveal their identities we see the characters Rafe Smith (Philip Correia) and Elizabeth Hall (Coco Jones).

Rafe, the other half of a scandalous relationship shared with Shakespeare's daughter, Susanna Hall (Emma Lowndes), is handed a flower by the entirely adorable Elizabeth, who then pitter-patters off.

And so starts The Herbal Bed at Salford`s Lowry theatre, a production run by The English Touring Theatre, the Royal & Derngate Theatre in Northampton and the Rose Theatre in Kingston, directed by James Dacre and written by Peter Whelan.

In a year which sees the 400th anniversary since William Shakespeare’s death, The Herbal Bed tells a story based on true events, set in the summer of 1613, when Shakespeare’s daughter is accused of adultery by a drunken and somewhat vengeful Jack Lane, played brilliantly by Matt Whitchurch.

An enticing trail of drama ensues.

This is a play defined by subtlety, a well-harnessed soft touch, notably in the lighting department and the music, fronted by Malcolm Rippeth and Valgeir SigurĂ°sson respectively. 

Lighting defined the tone of this play in every scene and managed to portray a change in mood from drama to romance, as well as producing stunningly aesthetic scenes such as one in which Susanna is lit purely by the light of a lamp she carries. 

The use of spotlight is also used to ramp up the tension when Susanna, John Hall (Jonathan Guy Lewis), Rafe and Hester Fletcher (Charlotte Wakefield) are interrogated by the enthralling Barnabus Goche (Michael Mears).

Subtle bird song is frequently deployed as background for the performance, which transports the audience from Salford into the full immersion of Doctor Hall and his family’s garden, the herbal bed.

Ominous noises are used to raise the drama of a scene which only helps to amplify the stellar performances of the actors, an extra embellishment to notify the mood change.

The comedic aspects of this performance were used sparingly and implemented to full effect by Matt Whitchurch.

His comedic inferences helped indoctrinate the audience into the world of the herbal bed, breaking the ice and bringing frequent chuckles to the enraptured Salford audience.

Another component of this performance which deserves recognition is the set, designed by Jonathan Fensom, which literally opened up the scene to the audience.

From its initial layout, the set transitioned by folding outwards from two walls of the house exterior to three walls of its internal garden.

All of these additional components help to propel the quality of the acting performances to a higher level, giving them the power to tell the story of The Herbal Bed in its full intensity.

The Herbal Bed runs at The Lowry until April 2.

Image courtesy of The Lowry, via YouTube, with thanks