Sometimes the thing you didn’t want to cross town to see becomes the play you absolutely must recommend. Until they open their new venue in Balham, Theatre 503 is the most tedious fringe journey for me, involving at least two trains and a circuitous bus, but And Then Come the Nightjars was more than worth the longish haul.
A compact and beautifully-observed two hander from Dartmoor-raised Bea Roberts, which won the inaugural Theatre 503 playwriting award, it focuses on the way the foot-and-mouth outbreak of 2001 shaped and shifted the friendship of lifelong herdsman Michael (RSC stalwart David Fielder) and his vet Jeff (Nigel Hastings).
Both have lost the women in their lives – Michael to aggressive cancer, Jeffrey by being a boozing tosser – but the plot works surprisingly well as its early pivot in which Jeff must dispatch the beloved and royally-named ‘girls’ of Michael’s dairy herd – ‘we lost Camilla to the bloat in February’ – becomes transformative to the men’s relationship which drifts between Godot-esque soul-searching and warm and wry Odd Couple comedy.
The West Country location, and Fielder’s impeccable accent are completely freed from the taint of Ambridge and the cow barn is rendered down to the last cobwebby detail Max Dorey’s near-perfect set genuinely evoking the quietude and desperation of country life as the farming crisis gives way to property speculation and neighbourly rivalries. Sally Fergusons’s lighting is elegantly impressive, hitting motes of dust as it slants through the broken laths of the barn roof and marking time with a subtle cycle through days and nights and seasons.
But it’s in the observation of the two difficult personalities that Roberts’ script and Paul Robinson‘s direction excel equally – never for a moment do you disbelieve either of the characterisations: if the ends of the plot are a touch too sentimentally tied at the finish, the way in which the men resolve their differences is quite beautifully done.
As a two-hander for middle-aged actors this has to have longevity. Fielder and Hastings’ performances are entirely first-rate and could easily carry it in to the West End as it already has the authentic texture of a Donmar Warehouse production, although I think star names would also be very attracted to it.
A winner. See it here, before it’s a hot ticket in town.
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