Bea Roberts’ And Then Come The Nightjars could have been moving play set at the hight of the foot and mouth crisis. Instead, it’s so much more.
Paul who? That might be the reaction to anyone thinking of seeing this touring production from Theatre 503, with Paul Robinson seen as just another director of just another touring company doing just another two-day run at Live Theatre. But if you haven’t heard of Paul Robinson, you will soon. He’s the new artistic director at the Stephen Joseph Theatre. So far I’ve only been able to speculate what he’ll bring, but now we had our first proper clue. For better or worse And The Come the Nightjars is likely to be the shape of things to come at Scarborough.
Set in Devon at the height of the second foot and mouth crisis, this two-hander is the story of Jeff, a vet, and Michael, a farmer. Writer Bea Roberts draws very heavily on her own observations of rural Devon, and one of many observations is how often farm vets visit farms and become good friends with the farmers. They end up chatting one night – ant then come the nightjars. There’s a superstition that the coming of nightjars fortells the coming of death. The nearby outbreak of foot and mouth is mentioned only briefly, but it’s clearly something that weighs heavy on Michael’s mind. A more detached observer might think that, with the compensation regime better than the days of the 1967 outbreak, a farmer like Michael could make a fresh start if the worst happens. And maybe it is. But money is the last thing on his mind. The herd is his lifetime’s work. His pride and joy. His herd is practically family to him; he always refers to his cows as “my girls” and give them all names.
And that’s what makes the second scene so heartbreaking. The worst does indeed come, and it falls to Jeff as the local vet to visit all the farms to dispose of the cattle properly before the army does it in a less humane more trigger-happy fashion. One might think that the sight of Jeff, the only man Michael trusts, might be what’s needed to make him accept the inevitable, but it isn’t. Instead, it’s threats, appeals to emotion, displays of all his best in show rosettes, but mostly a rather sad display of pleading. Perhaps Michael sees Jeff as his only hope to stop what’s coming. But however much we might wish he could, he can’t. Of course he can’t.
That scene alone could have made a perfectly good single-scene play. So much that I wondered about the necessity of the pre-foot-and-mouth scene one. But no. It’s more than just the stand-off on the day the army arrived – it’s the beginning of a story that runs for years. You see, that first scene wasn’t just there to set up scene two; there was also something mentioned briefly about Jeff about his own life. Now this is coming to a head, and in their next chance meeting, it’s now Jeff’s job to rebuild a broken Michael, but the other way round. And so the two run a farm together in a changing rural Devon, with the farm specialising in rare breed cattle, housing estates popping over the place, and increasingly finding tourism overtaking farming as their main business. Because Bea Roberts didn’t want this play to just be about three months when a crisis had the nation’s attention – it’s also about what happened when the nation moved on, in a changing rural landscape that few people paid attention to.
Bea Roberts has done a fine job, and a lot of the reason is that she doesn’t go for the easy fixes. Apart from taking a play beyond the easy subject that everyone’s heard of, she’s done a proper job of writing a “local” play. A common fault of these kinds of plays (sadly a fault that few critics are artistic directors seem to have a problem with) is laziness – the local references are often as generic as football rivalry between interchangeable teams, or uninspired local references that may as well have been lifted off Wikipedia. It’s a lot harder work to understand a local area – even one you live in – but Bea Roberts has brought this to life in a very believable way.
And what does this mean for the Stephen Joseph Theatre? A good choice of play, that’s for sure, and the hot tip I’m picking up is that this won’t be the last we’ll hear of Bea Roberts in Scarborough. For the production values, there was a lot of attention to detail, with set, sound. lighting and music. These things feature in SJT productions a lot – due in part to the lack of a full set in a theatre in the round forcing them to find other ways to do fitting staging. If I didn’t know better, I might have said it was the SJT that did this staging. So the early signs are that Paul Robinson should be right at home in Scarborough. All eyes now on his first production there.
And Then Come the Nightjars continues to tour and will perform at the Stephen Joseph Theatre on the 19th-20th October.