The White Feather*** (Union Theatre)

Posted: September 19, 2015 in Theatre

The White FeatherThis review was originally written for The Public reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com

It is a sign of the growing confidence of British musical theatre that writers feel able to cast off the shackles of the feel good factor and take on serious subjects. This show, here getting its premiere, is an account of some of the horrors and injustices of the first World War and it is not one that we can come out from with smiles on our faces. 16-year-old Harry and his sister Georgina, recently united on the death of their father, are torn apart when the tentacles of war reach out to their home in peaceful rural Suffolk. Harry, a dreamer who is plotting a new life in America, lies about his age to enlist, lured by the prospect of adventure and of seeing Paris (“just like Ipswich only bigger”). In 1914, everyone was duped, believing that the War would be over with and won before Christmas. The owner of the farm on which the siblings live and work, Adam also enlists to become an officer in the same unit as Harry. He leaves behind his covert lover Edward, a conscientious objector who escapes enlistment by feigning a leg injury. The first half jumps about between characters, intercutting scenes in Suffolk with brief snippets from the trenches and never really settling on the story’s main theme, which is, as suggested by the title, cowardice. There are sharp observations on the social structure of the age, but crucial incidents taking place at the front are only reported back to Suffolk and not seen, robbing the show of some of its dramatic potential. In the second half, the focus is again blurred, but now by the diversity of themes brought into play. A century ago, psychological damage caused by warfare was unacknowledged and soldiers who were not mentally fit to fight were deemed unwilling to fight, facing the prospect of summary execution for cowardice. A harrowing story centring on this issue forms the backbone of the show, but a sub-plot suggests that Adam’s suppressed homosexuality impairs his judgement in the combat zone and this brings to the fore another kind of injustice. Abigail Matthews is moving as the steadfast and principled Georgina, unflinching in her devotion to Adam Pettigrew’s naive and impulsive Harry. David Flynn also impresses as the tormented Adam and Zac Hamilton elicits sympathy for the ambivalent Edward. Andrew Keates’ simply-staged production flows smoothly, drawing strong performances from a company of nine. The songs by Ross Clark (with additions by Matthew Strachan) are accompanied by a three-piece band under the direction of Dustin Conrad and they are sung beautifully. The melodies are rich, with the haunting Set Them in Stone standing out, but some of the lyrics are bland and perhaps they could do more to flesh out the characters and advance the story. As an emotionally charged drama, The White Feather falls a little short of making the impact that it strives for, but, that aside, this tender and brittle little show still has plenty to offer.

Performance date: 18 September 2015

Photograph: Scott Rylander

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