Review: Love and power clash in dark yet hopeful play on Stratford stage

Tom Purchase-Rathbone as Jack Brown and Tracy Humphreys as Doll Green
Tom Purchase-Rathbone as Jack Brown and Tracy Humphreys as Doll Green

Nick Le Mesurier reviews Time Masons, presented by Second Thoughts at The Bear Pit Theatre, Rother Street, Stratford

Second Thoughts are a drama company with a reputation for staging work by new writers. This can be a brave endeavour in this day and age, when audiences have a plethora of choices from a variety of sources and thus tend on the whole to stick to the familiar. So it is admirable that a company puts its weight behind a full-scale production of an ambitious new work such as Time Masons.

The play cleverly mixes up two time frames, the medieval and the modern, suggesting in the end that beneath the tribulations of history people are motivated by the same basic desires. These are not always - indeed are not often - admirable. Greed, deception, cruelty are all there, countered somewhat by love, honesty and a desire for justice. All too often love struggles to make headway when confronted by power.

The setting throughout the play is one of the great cathedrals in the medieval era, still under construction. The exact historical period isn’t quite clear, but it is sometime after the peasants' revolt, when the plague had decimated the population and labour was scarce. It was a time when strange ideas of equality were voiced, “When Adam delved and Eve span, then who was the gentleman?” argued John Ball, one of the leaders of the revolt. That rebellion ended in failure as the authorities savagely suppressed the rioting workers. So Jack Brown (Tom Purchas-Rathbone) discovers to his cost when he tries to stir up resistance to the patron of the project, Lady Mary Devaux (Rachel Alcock), who wants to cut the labour force to save money. Jack’s a lusty lad, and probably someone you’d avoid in a pub, but he has a good heart and wants only fairness. Trouble is, he’s not too discreet in voicing his opposition to religion, a sure fire route to the stake. On his side, though torn in her loyalties between her faith and her responsibilities to the powers that be, is Abbess Faith (Emma Beasley), who is also secretly in love with Jack.

In the modern era, visiting the cathedral as tourists but somehow peeking through the time barrier, are politician Laura Phillips (Stacey Warner) and her lover journalist Ellie Napier (Abi Deehan). They watch as the medieval scenes unfurl, at first suspecting them to be played by actors but gradually realising they are closer to home than they think. We might not now use the sword and fire to maintain the status quo, but the same motivations are seen to be at play in their tempestuous love affair.

The acting in the production is good throughout, and the staging and direction offer much to enjoy. I particularly liked Graham Tyrer’s performance as the evil torturer John Cleaver, whose pleasure in others’ pain was convincing, and Emma Beasley’s tender Abbess Faith. Jane Grafton’s starchy puritan Jane Black was the picture of sadism lurking behind a mask of piety. Abi Deehan is a young actor to watch, who can handle a swift mood change with ease.

Fortunately for the audience there is plenty of humour of the earthy, Carry On kind, which often raises a laugh. But for me the taste that lingered at the end was somewhat dark and bitter, sweetened here and there by a few small rays of hope.