The Bounds, Royal Court, 2024
Photo: Von Fox Promotions
  • Theatre, Drama
  • Recommended


The Bounds

3 out of 5 stars

This folk horror football chiller – set during the reign of Edward VI – is funny, creepy and original


Time Out says

It would make for a pretty good Blackadder scenario. Writer Stewart Pringle’s Royal Court debut ‘The Bounds’ is set during the short reign of Edward VI, in the golden age of Tudor football – the days when ‘matches’ involved entire villages playing against each other, over vast tracts of land, for days on end.

It is Whitsuntide in rural Northumberland and Percy (Ryan Nolan) and Rowan (Lauren Waine) have been assigned to defend the western boundary of the playing field for the game between the villages of Allendale (their team) and Catton (their hated rivals). 

Nolan’s simple, earnest, slightly psychotic Percy is convinced that they’re going to see some action soon. Waine’s cynical Rowan is clearly aware of the obvious truth: that they have been shoved miles from the action because they suck.

Pringle has a terrific way with dialogue. I mention ‘Blackadder’, but where Ben Elton’s show essentially used modern language with a few period references, Pringle is superb at synthesising the historic and the contemporary. Rowan’s accounts of the joys of football (‘come on then, let’s get reamed by some farmers’) are wonderful, mixing a true fascination with the Early Modern game with winks to a contemporary audience you can see from space. 

Eventually the two are joined by Sam (Soroosh Lavasani), a perma-smiling aristocrat whose motives for inveigling his way into their presence are unclear. Nothing is going on football-wise where they are, and Percy is hysterically hostile thanks to the class-based chip on his shoulder and his suspicion that Sam – ‘Fat Sam’ he calls him – is working for the hated Catton. To be fair, Sam is pretty creepy.

Eventually, late at night, an otherworldly boy (Harry Weston) approaches Percy while the other two sleep. He tells him he is ‘beating the bounds’ – that is, redrawing the local boundaries – for his father. Percy is confused. Something very weird is going on.

The gear shift from virtual comedy to something approaching folk horror is elegantly handled in Jack McNamara’s production, abetted by some eerie ambient sound design from Matthew Tuckey that gives the long cold night an unsettling ‘alive’ quality.

It is a play about outsiders - at first in the sense of Percy and Rowan being the village misfits, but going on to ask a host of questions about the nature of belonging: class, gender, religion, administrative. Eventually it moves to metaphysical outsiderhood - the boy and his shadowy father aren’t from around here, to put it mildly.

It’s one of those plays where you’re very much waiting for it to go nuts. When it does, it’s a bit of a disappointment. Pringle throws so much at it in the last 10 minutes that it becomes a slog, really not helped by some final speeches with a jarringly agitprop tone, that insist on Stating The Themes Of The Play in a way that suggests Pringle doesn’t really trust us to interpret it ourselves.

Clearly there are not many Tudor football folk horror plays out there. I’d applaud the endeavour alone, but the fact is ‘The Bounds’ is very entertaining – funny, creepy, empathetic. To go there with the obvious simile, its 90 minutes are like a grippingly unpredictable game of football – it’s just unfortunate that it ends without a satisfying result.


£15-£25. Runs 1hr 30min
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