This review was originally written for The Public Reviews – http://www.thepublicreviews.com
Traditional folk songs, passed down from one generation to the next through decades and centuries, form part of out cultural heritage, but, until relatively recent times, they were never written down nor recorded. Kevin Mandry’s new play is set in 1916 when recording techniques were in their infancy and he sees the onset of an age when the songs could be taken away to be heard by wider audiences, whilst the people to whom they belong would remain rooted in their own place and time. Mary (Hilary Burns) is selling her small Sussex farm to George (Ian Mairs), who is unable to do military service due to disability. It is accepted that, as part of the deal, George will marry Mary’s foster daughter, Sarah (Isabella Marshall), who is seen by herself and everyone else as plain.Their world is disturbed by the arrival from London of Archie (Josh Taylor), a young army captain who is taking leave to research folk songs. He turns up on foot, towing a cart containing recording equipment, cylindrical discs and a Fortnums’ hamper. Much of the first half of the play is taken up with discussions over what is or is not an authentic folk song. Archie is a condescending toff who uses long words to emphasise that he has had an education; he is the sort of man that everyone has nightmares about being stuck with on a long train journey – when talking folk music, he can bore at international level. We are told that he has had an inglorious military career, has a drink problem and dislikes the Irish, but, otherwise, we know very little about him and the failure to flesh out this character may be the play’s biggest flaw. Inevitably Sarah sees Archie as her way to escape, but the story does not turn in this direction until after a first act which tends to ramble aimlessly. It is not clear why it is deemed necessary to have an interval in a play which would otherwise run for under 100 minutes and has no scene changes, but, when we return to our seats, the first 20 minutes of the second act is played in semi-darkness, making it rather like an episode of The Archers. In fact, Marshall’s performance becomes more credible during this period, because she is actually nothing like as plain as her character is described. The drama ignites briefly in the later stages, but mostly it remains laboured and clumsy. The four actors, plus Mac Elsey as an elderly farm hand, and director David Cottis do all they can to bring the production to life, but Mandry’s dialogue, for the most part prosaic and humourless, ultimately defeats them. Sadly, Flowers of the Field fails to blossom.
Performance date: 25 June 2014