One of my favourite things about theatre is the way it constantly surprises. You go into a play thinking you know what it’s about, and how you’ll react to it – and it turns out you’re totally wrong, in the best possible way.
An example: the unexpected delight that is And Then Come The Nightjars. Written by Bea Roberts, and co-produced by Theatre503 and the Bristol Old Vic Theatre, it’s billed as a story about the foot and mouth crisis that struck Britain’s farms in 2001. Which may not sound like laugh-a-minute stuff, but it turns out this wonderful play is funnier and more uplifting than I could have imagined.
Perhaps that’s because the depressing topic of foot and mouth is only a part of what this two-man play is really about. More than that, it focuses on the relationship between two friends: Michael, a Devonshire farmer, and Jeff, the local vet. The action covers several years, beginning in the early days of the foot and mouth epidemic, and on into the years that follow. Michael and Jeff’s chalk and cheese relationship has its ups and downs, like all friendships, but they’re exacerbated by the crisis, which places them unwillingly on opposite sides. In the years that follow, it’s not only Michael’s farm and the rural community that needs to recover.
So not surprisingly, there are some really poignant moments in Paul Robinson’s production, but there are also a lot of laughs – mostly thanks to the delightful character of Michael, played by David Fielder. With his gruff manner and thick West Country accent, which – as impenetrable as it sometimes is – can’t conceal his fondness for the f word, Michael’s the epitome of the grumpy old man, but with a vulnerability that means you can’t help but love him. Well-spoken and relentlessly cheerful Geoffrey (Nigel Hastings), who fills every silence with pub quiz questions, is Michael’s polar opposite, and yet that’s what makes their friendship so much fun to watch – it shouldn’t work, but somehow it does. The two actors are clearly having fun with their roles; they have great chemistry, and the affection between them is totally believable.
Though everything we see takes place in Michael’s barn, it wouldn’t be true to say that’s where all the action is; Max Dorey’s beautifully rustic set is only half the story. There’s an awful lot happening off stage too, but we don’t need to see it to understand what’s going on, and nor would we necessarily want to. One of the most powerful and heartbreaking scenes takes place at the height of the foot and mouth crisis; as Michael and Jeff stand silent and motionless in the centre of the barn, a flickering orange light tells us all we need to know about what’s occurring outside. It’s simple but incredibly effective – as are the slow interludes between scenes, where subtle shifts in the lighting, designed by Sally Ferguson, mean we can literally see time passing before our eyes.
And Then Come The Nightjars is a moving tale of friendship, and resilience in the face of almost unbearable loss. And it addresses these themes with such warmth and humour that I didn’t want it to end. Who would have thought a story about foot and mouth would be so enjoyable? Certainly not me.
You still have a few days left to catch And Then Come The Nightjars at Theatre503, catch it while you can…