The Herbal Bed - Review

Peter Whelan’s fascinating and multi-layered play is based on actual facts. Shakespeare’s daughter, Susanna Hall, is accused of adultery with Rafe Smith, a family friend. Her husband, a respected doctor, urges her to sue for slander and restore their good names.

It is a tale of passion, loyalty and religion centring on Susanna, an intelligent and independent woman living in a loveless marriage that puts her second to her husband’s work and dedication. Love has gone sour in Rafe’s marriage. His wife’s mental state is in decline following the loss of their two children. Each senses the sadness in the other and love secretly blossoms between them. It almost becomes consummated in circumstances that lead to the accusation. What follows shows that being economical with the truth is not a modern exercise and that skin saving lying is not the prerogative of politicians only.

The writing mixed moral debate with a goodly helping of humour and offered meaty parts for the actors. All rose to the challenge with no dud performances.

As Susanna, Red Gray gave a mesmerising performance that conveyed the duality of the character - outwardly an angelic soul nurturing forbidden passion within. Her eyes and glances told a different story to
her spoken words. They oozed love for Rafe whilst her body maintained a modest demeanour. Her transformation to a creature of sexuality in the night scene was stunning as was the way she took control of the ensuing situation. She became the puppet master over her lover and husband.

Sarah Charsley’s Hester, the servant, was a delightful piece of characterisation - a simple soul full of unrequited love for Rafe, yet feisty in defending it. After aiding her mistress by lying she got to deliver the funniest line in the play.

Rafe, in Warren Saunders hands, is basically a simple and honest man with a strong sense of conscience that threatens to wreck all their lives. His torment was well conveyed as he tried to reconcile his love with the shame of betraying his friendship with Dr Hall.

Simon Messingham played John Hall, the dedicated doctor who knows and accepts his wife’s unfaithfulness as long as it is never openly acknowledged. Such acknowledgment would destroy his position and life’s work. To protect this he goes along with the cover up. Hall’s portrayal was a sympathetic one and, again, one whose facial expressions spoke volumes as it gave away the realisation and anguish of his natural honesty being corrupted.
Comedy came from Jay Chappell as Jack Lane, the swaggering womaniser who behaviour belies his position as part of the local gentry. His posturing and drunken behaviour certainly amused the audience.

Gerry McCrudden turned in a nice cameo as Bishop Parry with a perfectly judged amount of benigness - a characteristic that was totally alien to his
Vicar General, Goche. In this role Alistair Lock almost stole the show with his chilling and, at times, hilarious portrayal of the man’s overzealous piety and puritanical loathing of the gentry. This was seen at its best during the cross examination scene. His performance brought to mind the thought that he would make an excellent Inquisitor should NVT ever put on Shaw’s Saint Joan and how about Sarah Charsley in the title role. (now there’s a thought, Tamsin)

Young Constance Starns played the role of the Hall’s daughter, Elizabeth, at the performance I attended – the role was shared with Cordelia Brand. Child actors can irritate with pretentiousness but not so Miss Starns. She had a sweetness that did not cloy and gave the part a most natural feel.

Tamsin Fraser’s direction was sensitive, unobtrusive and finely balanced the comedy with the dramatic action. She was supported by a creative that enhanced the production with a most realistic set, excellent music and sound effects. The simple lighting changes that enable the scene to move to Worcester Cathedral were most effective and deserve a special mention.

Barrie Jerram

20 June 2014