When I was young I used to play a game called “Consequences”. A subject would be chosen and then the first player wrote a line on a piece of paper about the subject, folded up the paper and passed it onto the second player who wrote the second line without being able to see what came before, folded up the paper and passed it to the next player and so on until the last player had written the last line which began “And the consequences were….”. The paper was then unfolded, the story read out loud and great hilarity (or not) ensued. Unfortunately it seems that’s how Ross Clark and Andrew Keates have written “The White Feather” and the consequences are a curate’s egg of a musical that never quite comes together in the book, songs and subject matter.
To give Ross and Andrew their due, they’ve been brave in writing a musical that tackles the serious subject of cowardice in the face of war as the title refers to the giving of white feathers during the First World War to men who were deemed cowards. However there are so many sub-plots going on, that the giving of the feather and its consequences, are never fully addressed and the audience is bounced from various places in time, location and sub-plot(s), never having time to draw breath or absorb what’s happening on stage. There are a number of speeches that come right out of nowhere concerning being a conscientious objector, early women’s rights, gay relationships and the horrors of war – it’s so episodic that the narrative flow keeps getting interrupted leaving the audience somewhat shell-shocked themselves.
The main plot revolves around the interactions of the people of Upton Davey, a small farming village in Suffolk as war breaks out. We meet Harry and his sister Georgina and the lord of the manor, Adam Davey as well various other villagers and it’s the convoluted relationship between Harry, Georgina and Adam that drives the plot rather than the relationship between the white feather and cowardice during the war to end all wars.
Although it’s set mainly between 1914 and 1918, after an introductory song called “True Suffolk Man”, we move abruptly to 1925 with a song called “In Paris We’ll Learn To Dance” although if you hadn’t read the programme first or caught the lyric that explains what year we’re in, you might have been confused as to why these two ladies were off to dance in France (the surprising reason for which is resolved at the end of act two). The first act then alternates between Upton Davey and the trenches of France although the set never changes. The early songs are folky and have a chamber music quality which is perfect for the time but later on we get some quasi Sondheim, Lloyd-Webber and Schoenberg (the writer of Les Mis not the classical composer) which don’t always work as well.
Having said that, there are two superb stand-out songs, “Set Them In Stone” and “Shadows Will Come”, the quality of which the writers seem aware of as they’re reprised in act two. However the second act is even more confusing than the first as we move between the end of the war in 1914, to 1915, 1947, 2006 and back to 1949 where the musical ends! In between we have what might be seen as an incestuous relationship between brother and sister Harry and Georgie (as he calls her) – they have a couple of love duets, the homosexual and unrequited longings of Adam towards Harry which results in the latter’s demise, the actual, physical relationship between Adam and Edward Brown one of the villagers and the throwaway lesbian pairing of Hannah and Emma the two ladies who were off to Paris (gay Paree?) at the beginning of act one!
As I said, this is a real curate’s egg. There’s a really thought-provoking subject to be tackled here but the writers don’t quite seem to have the courage of their convictions and fudge the issue. Harry is obviously suffering from shell-shock (today called PTSD) and the parliamentary pardoning in 2006 of these supposed “cowards” like Harry who were executed as deserters, is addressed but in a fleeting and perfunctory way in between scenes set in the 1940s so we never get a true sense of what it meant to the families of those unfairly executed by their own side.
I’m a big admirer of director Andrew Keates’ work and also of Sacha Regan’s choices of the productions she puts on at The Union, but in my opinion this production is a misjudgement. The dialogue is clunky and contains anachronisms such as “get a grip” and “sorry for your loss” and there’s some trite lyrics too such as “Who’ll shoot the rabbits and stop their foul habits”. The cast of nine do their best with some very ordinary material. Abigail Matthews as Georgie has to carry the show and sings beautifully but she often shouts her dialogue for no apparent reason (as do a number of the other cast members) and when she should be shouting, for instance at Adam (who she has recently married – it’s complicated!) when he tells her he had her brother Harry shot not because he was a coward but because he had longings for him (or as he puts it “German passions”), she seems to ignore this bombshell and carry on as if she hadn’t heard what he’s just told her! Adam Pettigrew as Harry was superb as the lead in the recent production of “How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying” at Ye Olde Rose & Crown but here is very much underused. The rest of the cast try manfully but they seemed somewhat under-rehearsed for a press night. One saving grace was the excellent band ably led by Dustin Conrad on piano, Sophie Gledhill on cello and Elliot Lyte on violin who as an ensemble played superbly.
I was really looking forward to seeing a brand new English musical about such a challenging subject but I was sorely disappointed. I would love to be able to write something constructive about “The White Feather” but I decided not to be a coward, refuse my white feather and tell it as I saw it.
Review by Alan Fitter
Arion Productions presents the world premiere of new British musical The White Feather at the Union Theatre. It tells the story of Georgina Briggs whose brother was one of over 300 allied soldiers executed for cowardice during the First World War. She won’t accept the shame and she won’t let it lie. But as she fights for justice a shocking discovery awaits her.
Memorials to the soldiers who fought and died in the Great War grace almost every town and village but 306 names are conspicuous by their absence – the men who were executed by their own side. Some were deserters and others were condemned for putting down their weapons in the course of battle but many were suffering from what we know now as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
The White Feather tells the story of one soldier and his sister’s lifelong fight for a posthumous pardon. It also encounters the issues of homosexuality and gender inequality at the turn of the century. With powerful songs and a storyline with a twist, this production has a sharp emotional intensity generated by words and music.
THE WHITE FEATHER: By Ross Clark
Directed & Developed: Andrew Keates
Book: Ross Clark and Andrew Keates
Music & Lyrics: Ross Clark
Additional Songs: Matthew Strachan
Arrangements: Dustin Conrad & Martin Coslett
Costume Designer: Natasha Prynne
Designer: Tim McQuillen-Wright
Lighting Designer: Neill Brinkworth
Musical Director: Dustin Conrad
Producer: Arion Productions Ltd
Sound Designer: James Nicholson
Stage Manager: Chuck Deer
Voice Coach: Sarah Stephenson
Willows: Christopher Blades
Edith: Katie Brennan
Adam Davey: David Flynn
Brown/Edward: Zac Hamilton
Emma Cardinall: Cameron Leigh
Georgina Briggs: Abigail Matthews
Harry Briggs: Adam Pettigrew
Hannah Fisher: Kathryn Rutherford
Peter Arthurs: Lee Dillon Stuart
The White Feather
16th September – 17th October 2015
Tuesday – Saturday at 7.30pm
Saturday and Sunday at 2.30pm
Sunday 20th September 2015