22 September 2015
An original British musical is something of a rarity in London theatre, with juke box shows and film adaptations dominating the West End, but luckily we have a thriving fringe circuit that is willing to take risks on such shows, as the Union Theatre has done with ‘The White Feather’. A beautifully touching musical, it tells the story of a woman’s struggle to clear her brother’s name after he is executed for cowardice while in the trenches of WW1. Covering the time leading up to, during, and after the Great War, we see the changing dynamics of one small Suffolk village and how they are affected by such a significant shift in their simple lives.
It is an incredibly strong ensemble performance, with every cast member getting the chance to show off their impeccable singing abilities both as soloists and chorally. The haunting score takes a lot of influence from traditional English folk music and the songs blissfully proceed through the show, with motifs and reprises featuring prominently. Ross Clark clearly has an understanding of what music is appropriate for such a sensitive story and is blessed to have such a talented cast perform his score with such distinction and power. The instrumentation—piano, cello and violin—is perfect for this piece and much of underscore adds tension and unease to emotive scenes. The book, also written by Clark, is not without its flaws and the dialogue occasionally seems clunky and unnatural. There is also sometimes a sense that we are rushed from scene to scene before getting a chance to really take in what has just happened, limiting the drama and gravity of the piece. That being said, it is a very brave story to tell, especially in a musical, and it is not too far away from being an incredibly accomplished piece of writing.
Focusing on the performances, Abigail Matthews is mesmerising in the lead role of Georgina. The way she portrays a young woman who is struggling to not only come to terms with the death of her brother, but also fight against the shame that is attached to his name, is truly remarkable. You can see every emotion the character is feeling before she even opens her mouth, and her hopeless anger in later scenes will have you fixated in awe. ‘Shadows Will Come’ and ‘I Must Forgive Him Now’ are both sang magically with so much feeling, and Matthews never once drops focus throughout the musical despite her challenging role.
Adam Pettigrew does a good job as Georgina’s brother Harry, performing ‘I See a Better Life’ magnificently. His transition from an enthusiastic and aspirational boy to a shell-shocked, frightened and mentally unstable young man is uncomfortable to watch and you really sympathise with his awful situation. Zac Hamilton also deserves commendation, playing Edward—a young gardener who manages to avoid going to war. His story is an interesting one, initially seeming to be the happy-go-lucky light relief of quite a tough play but later revealed to have hidden difficulties of his own. A stand out moment in the show is Lee Dillon-Stuart’s rendition of ‘In No Man’s Land’. During this number he plays a returning soldier who interrupts a celebration in the local pub by revealing what really is happening in France. The pain that comes through in this song is unbearable and Dillon-Stuart’s falsetto is simply perfect.
Andrew Keates’ direction is fairly hit-and-miss with some scenes feeling stilted or cluttered while others are captivating. He handles the trench scenes carefully and in a dignified way and uses the different levels of the simple set to good effect. The Union Theatre has a particularly wide stage and at times the spacing and angles of scenes is slightly odd for some sections of the audience, making it difficult to get emotionally involved in the action. However, Keates does create some interesting tableaux and movements during some of the chorus numbers that complement the main action well.
While a few edits are needed to make it the highly commendable show it deserves to be, it is a real treat to experience a daring piece of theatre that is trying to portray something new and important. The score is fantastic, the story is interesting and engaging and the cast are wonderful both individually and collectively. I wish the show the best of luck during its run and hope musical theatre lovers will take a chance on something different at this wonderful fringe venue.