The Bounds review – losers are the focus in this story of 16th-century footballers

<span>Relegated … Soroosh Lavasani, Lauren Waine and Ryan Nolan in The Bounds at Live theatre, Newcastle.</span><span>Photograph: Von Fox Promotions</span>
Relegated … Soroosh Lavasani, Lauren Waine and Ryan Nolan in The Bounds at Live theatre, Newcastle.Photograph: Von Fox Promotions

If you despair at how little work the goalie of your rival team has to do, just spare a thought for Rowan and Percy. In Stewart Pringle’s absorbing new play, they are defenders on a 16th-century football pitch that is measured in miles. This formative game, a lawless battle between rival Northumberland villages, can carry on for days. Stationed on a grassy knoll on the periphery, Rowan and Percy are like characters in Waiting for Godot (there is even a boy who arrives with a message from his master), dutifully biding their time in the hope that the action will come their way. It is hardly a spoiler to say it does not.

Just as possession of the ball eludes them, so they are more generally dispossessed. As Pringle’s play unfolds, it becomes apparent that their role as peasant labourers deprives them of agency. Kings, popes and London politics are as remote to them as the sporting action, yet in an era of reformation turmoil, embodied in the upper-class outsider Samuel, a Roman Catholic on the run, they will bear the consequences of decisions made far away.

Therein lies the strength and weakness of Pringle’s play. He wants to give voice to the ordinary people, the cannon fodder, the disfranchised, at the same time as implying the real events – whether sporting or political – are happening elsewhere. That Rowan and Percy are powerless is his point, but it also means they have no influence on the drama. Whatever they do makes no difference.

Although written with wit and abrasive lyricism, The Bounds is a play of character and ideas, not theatrical invention. It could transfer to radio with scarcely a word changed. All praise then to director Jack McNamara for holding the focus in a production that is steeped in the strangeness of this primitive game and the elemental starkness of the land and climate, not least thanks to Drummond Orr’s shimmering spring lighting on Verity Quinn’s earthen set. Lauren Waine and Ryan Nolan make an excellent double act as Rowan and Percy, irascible, surly and deadpan, their small-town distrust a comic contrast to the self-assured flamboyance of Soroosh Lavasani’s fated Samuel. They play a good game.

• At Live theatre, Newcastle, until 8 June. Then at Royal Court theatre, London, from 13 June to 13 July