The White Feather
The Union Theatre
General Sherman once famously said that “war is hell”. And so understandably it is a real challenge to portray the horror and complexity of war on stage. The productions which try can easily either become flagwaving and one-dimensional, or preachy and overly idealistic in their messages.
The White Feather manages to walk this very fine line; that’s why it’s such a triumph and deserves every accolade that comes its way. The story follows an East Anglian village, Upton Davey, as it copes with the strains and turbulence of the First World War. Men of all social strata are conscripted and coerced into the war effort, including the underage Harry Briggs.
The war takes it toll and young Harry is executed for ‘cowardice’ (he was mostly likely suffering what we’d recognise today as PSTD). His sister Georgina is left to deal with the social stigma from ‘genuine’ war widows as news of the circumstances behind Harry’s death unravels. Meanwhile, wealthly landowner Mr Davey is forced to hide his homosexual relationship with one of his staff and struggles to come to terms with his troubling war experiences.
The script, from Ross Clark and Andrew Keates, is immensely thought provoking and multi-layered, fluidly incorporating major themes such as gender, sexuality, class and politics. Whether it’s the injustice of the well-mannered yet hopeless Davey leapfrogging to officer class or the turmoil faced by homosexual villagers, it becomes clear that village life is way more fractured than first meets the eye. As well as being rich in drama, the dialogue also seems to fit the period setting, with close attention paid to historical detail.
The play is intrinsically political but in a tender way which puts the characters and their stories first. It shows all sides of war; yes, it can bring people together but it can also tear communities apart, whether it’s through physical trauma like shell shock or the emotional grief of losing loved ones. A dark second half is further destabilised by two seriously clever plot twists that put a fresh perspective on the show and the characters.
The score is truly excellent, with a series of soaring numbers, backed by a three piece strings-heavy band. Set Them In Stone, a hard-hitting and lyrical song with some wonderful harmonies, was my favourite but there were plenty of fantastic songs to choose from, all well performed and packed with emotion. A particularly inspired number was Harry’s Letter; the lyrics were taken from Harry’s censored army letter, with the redactions being reflected by a break in the music.
Abigail Matthews is sweet yet steely as the devoted sister turned campaigner Georgina Briggs. She has a powerful singing voice and gave a blistering opening to the second half with her solo ballad My Little Boy, Harry. She is matched by David Flynn as Mr Davey, who puts in a sensitive and touching performance as a man caught between his sexuality, sense of duty and his belief in the ‘natural order’ of the class system. Mr Davey emerges as a villain of sorts and yet remains likeable and sympathetic; this is largely due to a very strong acting and vocal performance from Flynn.
Adam Pettigrew is painfully sad and afflicted as the poor traumatised Harry and Zac Hamilton is cheeky yet heartfelt as Mr Davey’s male partner, Edward. Hamilton’s solo effort We Buried a Good Man Today is devastatingly sad, as a tearful Edward comes to terms with his loss; it really is wonderfully performed. Having said that, the character was not an easy one to pin down and seemed to transform from malingerer to principled conscientious objector rather quickly.
Also worthy of mention is Christopher Blades, playing a variety of parts, whose booming operatic tones get the production underway. It was a brilliant ensemble performance, and although there were one or two fluffed lines, they will inevitably iron themselves out over the course of the run.
The staging is consistently good, building up to a tear jerking and perfectly executed final scene, in which all the elements come together perfectly. I cannot properly scrutinise the East Anglian accents on display but they sounded authentic, so credit to Sarah Stephenson’s dialect coaching. Neill Brinkworth’s lighting is thoughtfully done, with the resulting hues of yellow and khaki brown creating just the right effect.
The play’s setting moves around throughout the performance – in Act Two it went from 1918 to 1947 to 2006 then back to 1949 over the course of fifteen minutes! Whilst this is used to great effect, more could have perhaps been done to signpost this as the cast and props did not visibly ‘age’ – it was easy to follow when armed with a programme but perhaps greater clarity could be given for those without.
The White Feather is everything musical theatre should be – it will make you think deeply about bravery, war and the nature of humanity all the way home. If there is any justice this exciting production will be given a longer run or a second home so it gets the wider viewing it deserves.