Lead Feathers

Tue 14th – Sat 18th May 2013

reviews

Alexandra Sutton

at 23:39 on 14th May 2013

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Walking into the intimate setting of the BT studio, I am faced with a stage that will come to perfectly capture the beauty of this production. A sparse but homely living room, juxtaposed with a backdrop of chicken wire, sackcloth, red poppies and white feathers. In one act, and in just over one hour, writer-director team Douglas Grant and Howard Coase somehow manage to create an exploration of societal reactions to Conscientious Objectors, and simultaneously map an intensely personal story of friendship and betrayal. Their art may be subtle, but it is certainly ambitious.

We begin with an uncomfortable post-war reunion between old friends, Cynthia (Tori McKenna) and Jane (Emily Troup). For friends they are strangely nervous, over polite even by wartime drama standards, and the period drama girl inside me is immediately impatient to know more. McKenna is wonderfully earnest; old beyond her years, she is the weary and vulnerable young wife of a social outcast - a conscientious objector. The role merits a sincerity that the actress delivers upon, and alongside the warmth of Troup's Jane, the pair ease us into a story that lingers behind a fraying curtain of civility. The script moves along excellently, with the right amount of patter to keep the mood light at first (Jane's suffragette daughter Elsie keeping everyone entertained), but with a tension taking possession of the dialogue as the evening wears on.

Unlike Cynthia's partner, Jane's husband Charlie (James Colenutt) is a returning war hero, complete with military decoration and swagger to boot. Colenutt is all charm and humility as he bumbles ever so genially about the tiny living room. His characterisation is coherent and engaging, perfectly embodying a role which is fundamentally about performance. Indeed, all the characters seem to be performing in some way, be it the post-war reactionary activism of Elsie, or Jane's constant desire to keep everyone happy. In this way, Grant and Coase project upon these five characters the restorative wishes of the post-war era, drawing upon the context of faded optimism and the emotional detritus of a war unlike any other. The sustained emotional responses to the war are shared chiefly by Charles, and Cynthia's husband Robert (Jack Wightman). Wightman's performance is excellent - restrained and proud, but deeply hurt. The relationship between the two men forms the core of this play. Their scenes are the most difficult to sit through as the actors lurch from broken intensity to monosyllabic civility, forcing you to endure the silences in between. Never has the word "Quite" been used so lethally...

I could go on in what so far has been rapturous praise, but with a play such as this, I feel the only way to do it any justice is to go and see it. I had a few quibbles, the garrulous nature of Troup's character sometimes led to a few issues with diction, and I have a personal aversion to actors pottering around and naturalistically picking things up and putting them down again during scene changes, but that's just fussiness. At the end of the production, the atmosphere is tangible, the audience exhausted, many of them probably googling "conscientious objection in WWI." That's just the type of play this is. It wrenches you in, slowly suffocates you with some old fashioned, stiff upper lip emotion, and then drops you back in your seat, breathless and with a longing to know more. This is new writing at its best, and I for one can't wait to see what Grant and Coase come up with next.

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Madeleine Chalmers

at 00:13 on 16th May 2013

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Doilies, leather armchair, teapot: this could only be England in 1919. The presence of Jane (Emily Troup) on stage, laying the table for afternoon tea as the audience enters, and the arrangement of the seating around the stage invites us to imagine ourselves into a cosy sitting room. However, all is not as it seems, in this exploration of the aftermath of war and issues of courage, cowardice, and loyalty, viewed through the prism of the reunion of two families.

The first sinister note is struck by the two symmetrical panels on either side of the stage, featuring poppies and white feathers intertwined in chicken wire. The two symbols – of the war hero and the coward – provide a poignant visual representation of two labels, which this play suggests are inadequate in the face of war. Their presence within the typical English setting room jars. The war intrudes despite the best efforts of the adult characters to ensure that “things go back to how they were before”.

The ensemble acting is excellent, with sophisticated, highly sensitive characterization from all cast members. James Colenutt as Charles, the war hero with more than one guilty secret, delivers an exceptionally nuanced performance. He handles effortlessly the transition from ‘jolly old chum’ to shame and self-loathing. Colenutt’s contorted expressions and drunkenness were utterly convincing, and he perfectly captured the mannerisms of the time. Emily Troup is also impressive as Charles’ loyal wife, Jane. Rapid-fire small talk, a generous personality and a desperate desire to have fun are her strategies for coping with her confusion at her situation. Troup excels at both the comic and tragic elements of this role.

As their daughter Elsie, Maddy Herbert convinces with adolescent gaucheness and impetuosity. Her relentless honesty provides a foil to the older generation. Robert (Jack Wightman) the conscientous objector and Cynthia (Tori McKenna) make their unease very obvious. McKenna gives us a Cynthia who is neurotic, coiled tight as a spring, and permanently on the verge of tears; Wightman positively simmers with suppressed anger. They provide a subtle contrast to Colenutt and Troup, drawing out very effectively the disparity between the two couples’ situations. It was extremely refreshing to see a student production which did not simply equate shouting with emotion. The British upper lip was approriately stiff, and the balance of restraint, repression, and sudden explosion therefore carried greater impact and conviction.

The only issues lay with the script, penned by the directors, Howard Coase and Douglas Grant. They are to be commended for their ambition and the script had some fine elements. However, there were occasional historical inaccuracies and narrative logic sometimes stretched credibility. It was not always clear exactly how much each character knew and when they had discovered it. Some of the contextual details – mentions of the musichall or facial reconstruction surgery for wounded soldiers – were dropped in a little too casually. They felt contrived, as if inserted to prove the extent of directorial research. A small number of modern stylistic infelicities and inconsistencies were also in evidence.

Issues such as class, politics and the place of women were only sketched, and this felt out of keeping with the period. The sense of rising tension was also lost by the movement of characters on and off stage. However, these are small details – the direction was inspired, and Coase and Grant certainly draw the best out of their cast.

The First World War can never be a hackneyed subject, and in evoking complex questions without providing clear-cut answers, these writers and actors challenge us to think afresh about a conflict which shook the foundations of society.

This production was deeply felt, and deeply moving.

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