While the likes of Vera Brittain’s memoir, ‘Testament of Youth’, the play Private Peaceful and even the musical Miss Saigon look to what happened out on the battlefield to tell their stories, White Feathers focuses on events at home, specifically during World War One. By ‘at home’, I do not mean the actions and deliberations of Lloyd George’s War Cabinet (interesting though that is – to me, anyway), but rather the lives of a group of young adults. The young men, the oldest of which, James (Tom Scurr) being just a couple of years out of school, must choose to go to war, or not. Their girlfriends are equally either supportive of the war effort – or not, especially when they choose to confront the idea that their lovers may never return.
The limitations of the small cast are easily overcome by a skilled script that deftly introducing multiple off-stage characters subtly. The audience is not left confused or bewildered by too many such extra people – that is, there are no ‘minor’ characters, even if we never see them. Each one has a significant part in the narrative.
Max Attard’s Ralph was not wholly believable when behaving antagonistically towards young Michael (Joe Jones). This is not a deficiency in performance (as I had initially thought) – the reasons for Ralph’s words being quite threatening but his actions being comparatively benign become clear later on. When all is revealed, it’s a refreshing moment, letting the audience witness another side of what is otherwise a somewhat egotistical and presumptuous character.
There is an interesting use of scripture and religion to cement a position of conscientiously objecting to serving King and Country. Perhaps ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ was a hymn either considered inept or just downright sinful by the evangelical James. Where other plays would prefer to downplay biblical references, this one sees no problem in quoting chapter and verse, over and over again.
I don’t object to this in itself. The King James Bible is a great piece of literature, but after a while, combined with James’ lecturing style, the moralising grew quite tiresome, and the play was in danger of crossing over into being about religious radicalisation rather than about war and its consequences. But, here’s the good news – I think it is a testimony (if I may use a religious term here) of how convincing Tom Scurr’s James was.
Though at times exhausting to watch, the play is not all gloomy. A blissful scene involving jam leaves Anna (Suzy Gill) and Millie (Imogen Wilde) in cahoots, while Ralph was joyously optimistic, at least to Anna’s face, that he’d be back from the frontline in one piece. But the show runs through the full range of human emotional expression. When a crime against the person is committed (for some reason, the audience is subjected to a most uncomfortable experience seeing it enacted), the repercussions are severe, even for those who really had nothing to do with it.
What happened to Anna was so horrifying she had so much trouble explaining it to anyone who wasn’t there when the critical incident took place. For all the Bible quoting, nobody had thought to cite St John’s Gospel, chapter 8, verse 32: “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” This play would have ended very differently indeed if that were heeded.
The story is a mature one, and sadly but incredibly realistically does not end entirely happily. Remarkably neutral on whether going to fight is the correct course of action (the cynic in me wonders if it may have been better to take a stance one way or the other), what was most challenging was seeing characters suffer in a way that they had to 100 years ago, without the support networks and help available to us today.
The show moves at a steady but assured pace, and successfully held my attention throughout. An extremely bold piece of theatre, White Feathers is a powerful and effective play, reminding us all, even those of us who now live in peacetime, to attempt to see things from the perspective of others, irrespective of whether we agree.
Review by Chris Omaweng
BY SUZY GILL – DIRECTED BY ROBERT WOLSTENHOLME
As Europe hurtles towards war, two school friends make choices that will change their lives. To fight or not to
fight? Faced with the trenches of Flanders or being ridiculed for being a conscientious objector, which is
braver? And what courage does it take from those around them to support the ones they love?
White Feathers is the debut production from Blue Ash Theatre Company, bringing together new writer Suzy
Gill and seasoned director Robert Wolstenholme (Signal Theatre Company). It plays at the Bread & Roses
Theatre in November including, poignantly, on Remembrance Sunday.
Given its premiere during the centenary commemorations of the Great War, this beautiful, heartbreaking new
play explores the limits of patriotism and belief, the price of love and the borders of friendship.
Contains graphic sexual violence – 18+
Cast: Max Attard, Tom Scurr, Joe Jones, Suzy Gill, Imogen Wilde
Director: Robert Wolstenholme. Designer: Lucy Archbould
3rd – 14th November, 2015 (excluding the 9th)
The Bread and Roses Theatre
68 Clapham Manor Street, Clapham SW4 6DZ, London