Review: Offered Up at Royal Court Studio ****
The Royal Court Studio was designed in part to provide a setting for new work to receive a much-needed first outing in front of a live audience.
And since the last lockdown ended, it feels as though theatre bosses have started programming in much more content to the intimate space below the main auditorium (from where the occasional thud of a musical beat can be heard).
Offered Up, a new English Civil War-era play from Joe Matthew-Morris, is receiving an extended run on the studio’s slim stage.
The writer, actor and musician is currently a member of the theatre’s box office team, but Royal Court regulars will also have seen him on stage recently as the supine late Mrs Llewellyn in The Royal.
Offered Up is his first full-length drama and it boasts not only an impressively structured script, but a classy cast and creative team behind it too.
If you’re expecting the lace-collared gentility of By The Sword Divided or the silliness of 1066 And All That or Horrible Histories you may be disappointed.
What Matthew-Morris has instead done is use the brutal, fractured 1640s as a backdrop for what turns out to be at times a physically brutal story which embraces ideas around society, class hierarchy, privilege, power, toxic patriarchy and morality.
The plot unfolds inside the bar of a Cheshire tavern, nicely realised by designer Alfie Heywood and a team of carpenters – all timber windows, doors and bar, and lime plaster walls.
Willmas (Ben Tiraman) is the seemingly straightforward, upstanding innkeeper trying to keep his head down amid Royalist and Parliamentarian skirmishes and deserters marauding through the neighbourhood.
Above: Helen Carter as Jennet and Harvey Robinson as Thomas. Top: Willmas (Ben Tiraman) and Rosamund (Katy Metherington). Photos by Clara Mbirimi
Meanwhile dutiful daughter Rosamund (an assured Katy Metherington) - a vision in Puritan handmaiden monochrome - is a pious quoter of Biblical verses and worried keeper of accounts.
Into their lives come two strangers, the bilious, Belial-tongue Thomas (Harvey Robinson) and ballsy, wounded female spy Jennet (Helen Carter), who – here’s one for Civil War historians – threaten to turn their world upside down.
Keeping the action mainly within the confines of the tavern bar gives it a simmering pressure cooker feel as the two strangers’ secrets start to spill out and Willmas and Rosamund must each choose how to respond.
Robinson is superbly shifty as Thomas, a man whose outward clerical garb hides a decidedly flexible morality, while Carter evidently relishes her role as Jennet, who may lack compassion but who turns out to be a fearless and doughty champion of justice.
Under director Paul Goetzee the production maintains an absorbing narrative pace and air of uncertainty, and there’s a craftily delivered plot twist in the second half.
Whether you’re a Roundhead or a Cavalier, there’s much to enjoy and admire in Matthew-Morris’s engaging, un-civil Civil War tale which proves the pen might just be mightier than the sword.