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A Portrait of a Dying Way of Life

TARA CARLIN reviews ‘And Then Come the Nightjars’ at Theatre503.

At Theatre503 in the heart of Battersea , a new production of Bea Roberts’ ‘And Then Come the Nightjars’ reminds an urban audience of the ramifications rural communities must face in the wake of a foot and mouth outbreak. The West Country writer—the deserving winner of Theatre503’s playwriting award—leaves her audience in no doubt of the devastation the disease causes. Michael, portrayed by David Fielder, is just one of many farmers who invests his whole life in the welfare of his animals and is left with nothing as the government declares that even healthy cattle must be killed.

In the early hours of the morning in 2001, elderly farmer Michael and his old friend, local vet Jeffrey, are sitting in a barn in Devon. They are waiting for Dotty the cow to give birth; the calf will join a herd of cows all named after members of the royal family. There are dark undertones to this tranquil scene. Michael is recently bereaved of his wife and Jeffrey, the younger of the two, is in the process of losing his. Yet, they are surrounded by a broader storm that affects them both: foot and mouth.

The play explores loss and isolation on a personal level as Roberts’ script gives an insight into two contrasting characters that share an intense loneliness. It becomes clear that their friendship is a refuge for both of them as they seem to lose everything and everyone else they hold dear. Used to a contented life of rural solitude, they are faced with a world where barns are converted into spas, as farming becomes a dying art. The play paints a bleak picture; yet, Roberts’ writing provides comic relief throughout. David Fielder (Michael) and Nigel Hastings (Jeffrey) tickle the audience with their fair share of witty and often bawdy one-liners.

Photo credit: Jeremiah Jones
Photo credit: Jeremiah Jones

So, ‘what’s up with the title?’ Nightjars, short-billed birds known for a distinctive ‘chirring’ call, are notoriously hard to spot and are often associated with unluckiness in folklore. Sometimes referred to as ‘goatsuckers’, stemming from the belief that they infect calves, they therefore function as a subtle metaphor within the play. They allude to the suspicious nature of provincial rural communities and the sense that the community has been cursed when illness strikes.

Complementing Roberts’ straightforward plot, Max Dorey’s wonderful simplicity in set design places the entirety of the play inside a barn. This intimate setting accentuates the bond between Michael and Jeffrey, as well as the humour. Though small and modest, Theatre503’s latest production proves to be a touching and eye-opening tale of rural life.

‘And Then Come the Nightjars’ is playing at Theatre503 until 26th September. For more information and to book tickets visit https://theatre503.com/whats-on/and-then-come-the-nightjars/.