“The Bounds” at Royal Court Theatre

Tom Bolton in West London
23 June 2024

The entirety of Stewart Pringle’s The Bounds takes place on a small patch of earth. Grass and soil have, in Verity Quinn’s perfectly pitched set, erupted from beneath the boards, bursting through. Generally we wouldn’t give the muddy hillock, nor the people standing on it, a second glance – and this invisibility is the play’s driving theme. It’s 1553. Percy (Ryan Nolan) and Rowan (Lauren Waine) are taking part in an inter-village football match resembling the Ashbourne Shrovetide match still played today. The game maraudes across two parishes, Allendale and Catton, which are bitter rivals. It involves everyone and goes on as long as it takes, which could be a couple of days.


Photo credit: Von Fox Promotions.


But, despite Percy and Rowan’s dedication to the Allendale cause, they seem to have been stationed as far from the action as possible, and it becomes apparent they are outsiders in other ways too. Then a third character appears, Samuel (Soroosh Lavasani), richer and more educated but also an outsider, and a threat in ways they can’t quite define.

Pringle’s writing gleefully mashes modern idioms and ways of thinking with the Tudor setting, creating a play that is both very funny and highly insightful. The play has Blackadder-esque village comedy, played with complete commitment by Nolan and Waine, but always with an undercurrent of menace in the background.

At first we think it’s down to Percy, angry at being taken for a fool, but deeper political currents are swirling. Samuel is not what he seems, and there is change afoot. Under the apparently distant “boy king” Edward VI in far-away London, land is being claimed, boundaries moved, and riotous football matches banned. The gentry are represented by an aloof boy (played by several young actors) who wanders in and tears Percy’s reality apart with a few casual words. Meanwhile Rowan has scars on her neck inflicted by her own village, where she has been branded a scold.

The ambition of The Bounds is impressive, and Pringle has a clear social mission reminiscent of writers such as John Arden, who delved into the past to overturn our assumptions about history and identity. Tightly directed by Jack McNamara for Newcastle-based company Live Theatre, the small cast are excellent. Nolan is a bug-eyed powder keg, Waine kind under a tough carapace, and Lavasani a smooth operator who is out of his depth.

The play’s coup de grace is its finale, as it breaks out of its Tudor setting and reaches for universal resonance. The era switch, with echoes of The Glow by Alistair McDowall, is a thrilling device, subtly signalled through slight dissonances in language. It breaks the hyper-local setting wide open, linking it to millions of working people lined up on battlefields through centuries of wars. Pringle, himself from Allendale, opens up the past and shows us things we’ve seen but not understood. The Bounds is new writing of the highest quality.