15th, September, 2015
‘You hardly ever see ’em, only hear them. They fly silent.
It’s bad luck is Nightjars. It’s a bird o’ death.’
Ironically, I have been recently listening to ‘The Reunion’ during which Sue MacGregor interviews five people whose lives and livelihoods were dramatically changed by the Foot and Mouth epidemic of 2001. The devastating effects of the pandemic which saw the slaughter of four million animals, the virtual closure of the countryside and the postponement of a general election provide a backdrop for Bea Roberts’ extraordinarily moving picture of male friendship over twelve years and a British tragedy.
The play’s unusual and aptly chosen title serves as a metaphor for doom. Nightjars are short-billed birds known for their distinctive ‘chirring’ call, and considered unlucky. In some parts of Britain they have traditionally had the nickname ‘goatsuckers’, thanks to the belief that they drink livestock dry, and they’re also reputed to infect calves with a deadly disease. So Roberts’ play is a raw reminder of just how devastating the disease was. For a farmer such as Michael, a man who has invested his life in the welfare of his animals, rendered helpless before a faceless government bureaucracy that declares that even apparently healthy cattle must be killed, it is so heart-breaking.
The immediate impact as the audience awaits the start of the play is designer, Max Dorey’s set – a meticulously conceived barn in Devonshire, light spilling through the slatted ceiling; he has such a precise eye for detail, for weathering and decay; Sally Ferguson’s lighting marks time with a subtle cycle through days and nights and seasons.
Following the death of his wife Sheila, Michael devotes himself to his prize-winning herd of cows, each named after members of the Royal Family, and eventually has to lose them: ‘we lost Camilla to the bloat in February’. Friend and local vet, Jeff is a shadowed reminder of the disease recently discovered on a neighbouring farm: foot and mouth; a whole herd slaughtered and set to burn. Paul Robinson sensitively directs the friendship between Michael (David Fielder) and Jeff (Nigel Hastings) is savagely funny and sad. The humour derives from various sources: a lament for a vanishing countryside, a tradition of farming challenged by conglomerates, second-homers, Grand Design barn conversions
The second half leaps a decade during which farming communities such as Ashwalden in South Devon had to find a way to pick themselves up and carry on.; Though the interim period is left unexplained we find ourselves in 2011 – Jeff seems to have moved in with Michael but it doesn’t seem to matter as the writing and acting remain sharp. We witness a growing mutual dependence between the two men as each becomes the other’s last support. The loss of women in their lives is a palpable absence, though Jeff just manages to hang on to his daughter.
Out of the two actors, Fielder, bearded, gruff with his thick accent, faultlessly carries us through his personal drama with compassion and rage. His cry, ‘Don’t take my girls’, when he faces the inevitable loss of his herd, is so powerful.
At first, Hastings falters in his role of a middle-class professional, more affected than the farmers he assists but respected for his veterinary skills. Quickly Hastings slips comfortably into Jeff’s Home Counties’ disposition and being more compliant with government agricultural policy. Yes, it is a classic odd couple friendship; a clash between rational modernity and a more instinctive attachment to the land. Both Michael and Jeff are ‘lost’ men. Roberts creates a beautifully, finely observed portrait of a complex male friendship however unlikely it may appear to be. At times the script seems Godot-esque and at others it is worthy of gritty stand-up comedy. It may be a touch too sentimentally tied at the finish but we are left knowing that the men hold an underlying respect for and trust in each other despite what may have seemed like an earlier betrayal.
Young West Country writer Bea Roberts is the deserved winner of Theatre503’s inaugural playwriting award which offers writers both a decent cash prize and the chance to see their work given a full-scale professional production. This is a further reminder of how Theatre503 is unrivalled in its support of new writers, reading and reporting on more unsolicited scripts than anywhere in the country. The next Theatre503 Playwriting Award will be open for applications from autumn 2015, with the selected winner being staged in 2017