First published in The Times, Monday April 17 2017
Bea Roberts’s award-winning two-hander, which debuted at London’s Theatre 503 in 2015, is that rare beast: an unapologetic lament for a pastoral way of life that is fast disappearing. It is fitting that this first major tour of the play, which touches upon the foot-and-mouth outbreak of 2001, should be playing to rural audiences, from Cumbria to Crieff. A drama with a cattle farmer at its centre was always going to have its opening night in Scotland at the Byre.
Though Roberts’s subject matter is frequently sad and serious, the playwright never wallows in tragedy. Her protagonists are Michael (Finlay Welsh), the cantankerous South Devon dairy farmer, whose work increasingly offers a distraction from his grief at the death of his wife, and Jeffrey (Nigel Hastings), the local vet, whose own family life is threatened by a worsening drink habit.
Pic: Steve Barber
For all their sometimes bad-tempered exchanges, the two men have weathered the ups and downs of an unlikely relationship for years. When foot-and-mouth threatens Michael’s beloved livestock, Jeffrey insists on being present to destroy the animals himself. This leads to tension between the two but Michael recovers to to help his friend face up to his own demons.
The pace of Paul Robinson’s production is suitably gentle and patient, even if the action takes a while to get into its stride and certain scenes feel encumbered with padding. For instance, there’s a lengthy dance sequence halfway through to the strains of Maroon 5’s Moves Like Jagger that feels as though it has strutted in from another play entirely.
Pic: Steve Barber
Despite the occasional jarringly crude outburst, Roberts’s writing flows and offers flashes of lyricism that should mark her out as a talent to watch. While And Then Come the Nightjars is less a play with a strong dramatic through-line than a slow-burning portrait of a friendship and a place, the playwright vividly describes the attachment these characters have for the land and their sorrow at witnessing their way of life slip into the history books.
The sense of place and the passage of time are further evoked in this co-production with Perth Theatre by the set, designed with spot-on detail by Max Dorey, and versatile lighting from Sally Ferguson. Welsh and Hastings, bringing a further layer of authenticity to the play, convincingly portray the crotchety friendship between Michael and Jeffrey, which culminates in a movingly understated scene.
Touring Scotland to April 29. Theatre503.com