The Bounds at the Royal Court – review

Stewart Pringle’s play is set in the 16th century

Ryan Nolan, Lauren Waine, © Von Fox Promotions
Ryan Nolan, Lauren Waine, © Von Fox Promotions

The apocalypse comes laced with ribald humour and pithy social commentary in The Bounds, Stewart Pringle’s hilarious but haunting play running upstairs at the Royal Court in a co-production with Newcastle’s new writing company Live Theatre.

Inspired by the discovery that football was played, often with extreme violence, in England as far back as the 16th century on enormous pitches covering several square miles, Pringle posits his central characters, mud-covered serfs Percy and Rowan at the edges of a number of things at once. Geographically, they’re at the boundaries of one of the outsize playing pitches waiting for the match to start; spiritually and morally, they’re at the limits of their tolerance and human dignity; historically, they’re inhabitants of a Tudor England being swept through by the winds of social, political and religious change; and existentially, well, it looks like the world is about to end. Literally.

The first few minutes are a semi-anachronistic, laugh-out-loud riot. Pringle has great fun recreating the mouthy, sweary enthusiasm of football supporters, the chants, robust opining and general fanaticism, but in a sixteenth century Northumbrian setting. Ryan Nolan’s perpetually indignant, comically fragile Percy and Lauren Waine’s pragmatic, witty Rowan make a fine, potty-mouthed double act, interrupted by the arrival of well spoken, immaculately dressed Samuel (Soroosh Lavasani), who’s apparently the Oxford-educated son of local gentry. Although Samuel seems benign, albeit clueless about football, Percy turns on him viciously, while the bemused Rowan is much friendlier. It’s not hard to see the parallels between class inequality in the Tudor age and the ever-widening gulfs between the haves and have-nots of our present time.

Pringle goes even further though, subverting his rollicking comedy into a sort of folk phantasmagoria hurtling bleakly towards some unspecified armageddon. Rowan suffers from unsettling visions, has witnessed aberrations in nature and warns of impending war, while there’s clearly more to Samuel than meets the eye…and who’s the mysterious child that appears periodically to thoroughly discombobulate Percy?

The script doesn’t provide definitive answers, and the impact of Jack McNamara’s production is as much down to Matthew Tuckey’s terrifying sound design, Drummond Orr’s moody, effective lighting and the muddy, grim set and costumes by Verity Quinn, as it is to the captivating but sometimes frustratingly elliptical writing. That said, the lightning fast changes in tone are so well handled that audience members are never confused whether they should be laughing, or open-mouthed in shock, but overall the comic elements are more successful than the portentous.

It’s very well acted. Nolan is delightfully unhinged as Percy, but also finds the alarming darkness within him, and Waine’s strong, unconventional Rowan fully convinces as a powerful woman born in entirely the wrong historical period to suite her intelligence and off-kilter energy. Lavasani intriguingly hints at an otherworldly urgency beneath Samuel’s calm, civilised exterior.

If ultimately The Bounds can’t quite support the immense burden of themes that it sets up for itself, it’s still refreshing to encounter a modern play so suffused with ambition and imagination. It’s unsettling, engrossing stuff, delivered from utter despair by shards of brilliant, boisterous humour. Complete extinction has seldom seemed so entertaining.

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The Bounds

Closed: 13 July 2024