The Herbal Bed, Royal & Derngate, Northampton, review: Gripping drama and plausible historical speculation

This fine revival of Peter Whelan's 1996 play comes across as a luminous labour of love

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The Independent Culture

Peter Whelan's 1996 play is both gripping domestic drama and a richly plausible piece of historical speculation. James Dacre's revival – in this strongly cast co-production with English Touring Theatre and the Rose, Kingston – comes across as a luminous labour of love. In 1613, as we know from the records of the consistory court at Worcester Cathedral, Susannah Hall, Shakespeare's daughter and wife of a Stratford physician, brought an action for slander against Jack Lane, her husband's dissolute former apprentice, who had publicly accused her of adultery with Rafe Smith, a local haberdasher, and of having gonorrhoea.

Whelan imagines a situation in which the allegation of adultery is only technically untrue. Emma Lowndes beautifully conveys the frustrated yearning of an intelligent, complex woman who respects her husband's professional dedication and is allowed to help him as compensation for the passionate love he reserves for his calling. The irony is that this conscientious Puritan (a compellingly troubled Jonathan Guy Lewis) is undeceived about the real nature of the extra-marital relationship and yet insists that, for the sake of his medical practice, that a charade of righteousness be maintained. Susannah is shown to have inherited her father's gift for dissembling in a play that asks whether lying is sometimes justified and that gives us a foretaste, in Michael Mears's creepy Vicar-General, of the inflexible zeal that would soon close down the theatres.

To February 28; 01604 624811; then touring