“With principles come responsibilities”
It is perhaps a tacit admission of the complexity of the timeline (1914-2006) of new musical The White Feather that it is explicitly spelled out in the programme, each song accompanied by its time and place which isn’t always abundantly clear from the production, directed by Andrew Keates. Ross Clark and Keates’ book has an admirable scope in trying to draw together narrative strands around cowardice in the Great War, the condition we now know as post-traumatic stress disorder, female emancipation, closeted homosexuality, the comparative merits of Ipswich and Paris… but in this short space of time at the Union Theatre and with insufficient clarity, can’t quite do them all justice.
The main story focuses on sixteen year old Suffolk farmer lad Harry Briggs (a suitably petulant Adam Pettigrew) who enthusiastically signs up for the army in 1914, pretending he’s three years older in order to make the cut, but who is soon emotionally brutalised by the horrors of war and the inability of the armed forces to recognise the problem. Executed for cowardice, like over 300 other Allied soldiers, it is left to his sister Georgina (a focused Abigail Matthews) to embark on a lengthy fight for a posthumous pardon, one which also traces her own journey through the troubled times of a country at war and a society in the midst of great upheaval.
This involves her managing the local estate as the local landowner, David Flynn’s achingly repressed Adam Davey, leaves her in charge – Davey coming to play a hugely significant part in the lives of both siblings – and dealing with the village folk from dismissive society ladies to conscientious objectors. There’s much in here that works well but there’s just so much material that few of the stories get the chance to really breathe and build up the emotional charge that they deserve. Clark’s swirling score for piano and strings (led by Dustin Conrad from the keys) also initially struggles in the constraints of this episodic format but as the show progresses, its beauty is allowed to be fully expressed.
What emerges as the main theme of ‘Set Them In Stone’ is an exquisitely elegiac tune, pre-echoing early on and then woven through the fabric of the show throughout in different forms and exploring the British folk music tradition, rousing full company numbers like ‘Fire and Glory’ and ‘It’ll All Be Over By Christmas’ have great impact elevated by Anthony Whiteman’s choreography. Additional songs have been contributed by Matthew Strachan which may well account for a certain inconsistency in style but when it results in powerful solo numbers like Katie Brennan’s rousing ‘I’ll Tell You What I’m Fighting For’ and Lee Dillon Stuart’s impassioned ‘In No Man’s Land’, it works.
There’s much to enjoy in The White Feather, not least the development of a striking new piece of British musical theatre and a new composing voice (for me at least) in Ross Clark. And as with anything ambitious, that development feels like an ongoing process. One of the show’s most affectingly emotional moments comes at the very end, when Zac Hamilton spins gold from the meagrest of material to show the grief coming from a lifetime of love and it is this focus on the human detail, the actual relationships (not just between Davey and Edward but also Georgina and Harry) that needs to be more effectively explored and combined with this epic scope of a century-long battle for justice.