New writing is the life-blood of theatre. Like a freshwater pond, it needs constant replenishment to keep its ecology healthy and thriving.
Theatre 503 – along with a many others – do as much as anyone to keep stocks replenished. And Then Come the Nightjars is indeed the winner of Theatre503’s 2014 Playwriting Award, produced now in conjunction with Bristol Old Vic where it will transfer after finishing its London run.
Bea Roberts’ two-hander is a remarkably mature piece of work. Previously working as a stand-up comic must contribute to her sure sense of where and how to place dialogue to maximum effect. To sustain interest and momentum for 90 minutes between two characters is no mean feat.
This Roberts accomplishes with ease. Her protagonists are situated at the apex of social change, one that only occasionally in theatre receives attention. Namely, farming. Barney Norris’s award-winning, slow-burner, Visitors, last year at the Bush took a rural setting for its painful drawing of an ageing marriage and family dynamics.
Roberts instead hones in directly on the terrible repercussions arising from the Foot & Mouth epidemic in 2001 and on the effect on one Devon farmer of losing `all his girls’ (Nightjars are a symbol of death to farmers), condemned, though healthy, by DEFRA (the Department for Economic and Rural Affairs) in order to `contain’ the outbreak.
Anyone listening to `Farming Today’ will have heard the crucifying emotional effect on some farmers for whom their animals are not just measured in tonnage to slaughter. Roberts brings this reality tellingly to life in the shape of Michael. Played by veteran actor David Fielder with a west country burr at times almost impenetrable, his anguish is nonetheless keenly conveyed through his rough and tumble relationship with local vet, Jeff – a `waste of space’ according to Michael and also to his wife – played by Nigel Hastings with a wonderful combination of gaucheness and warmth.
Theatre503’s artistic director, Paul Robinson produces a beautifully judged, hauntingly lit production for a play that like Waiting for Godot, or towards the end, suggesting Falstaff and Prince Hal, portrays the sustainability of an unusual male friendship against a backdrop of today’s fast changing farming landscape.
And Then Come The Nightjars is at Theatre503 to Sept 26, 2015
First published in Reviewsgate Sept 2015