THEATRE REVIEWS

And Then Come The Nightjars,

Seen at Byre Theatre, St Andrews:

touring until April 29

His Final Bow,

Seen at Oran Mor, Glasgow:

touring to Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh,

April 18-22;

and The Lemon Tree, Aberdeen,

April 25-29

Reviewed by Mark Brown

A play focused upon a Devon dairy farmer and a veterinary surgeon during the devastating outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in 2001 does not, I admit, sound particularly prepossessing. Nevertheless, Bea Roberts's drama And Then Come The Nightjars (currently touring Scotland courtesy of Perth Theatre, among others) soon justifies its past acclaim.

It is appropriate that the play, which is set in farmer Michael's barn, should begin its Scottish tour at the Byre Theatre (the symbol of which is a happy cow, jumping over the moon). There's no such joy on Michael's farm, however. Despite the best efforts of his dear friend Jeffrey, the head vet for the area, his uninfected herd of cows will not be spared in the government's desperate attempts to prevent the rapid spread of the disease.

The cull puts immense strain on the friendship between the two men. Michael (Finlay Welsh on wonderfully indignant-yet-sympathetic form) cannot accept the slaughter of his healthy "girls", whilst Jeffrey (Nigel Hastings, excellent as the outsider "gone native" in Devon) is duty bound to facilitate the destruction of the herd.

Through this narrative Roberts weaves a touching, often very funny story of male co-dependency. Michael's beloved wife died shortly before the disease outbreak, while Jeffrey is an alcoholic whose family life is on the verge of implosion. Like Gogo and Didi from Beckett's Waiting For Godot, the men take refuge in each other.

Director Paul Robinson's production maintains a lovely balance between Roberts's comedy and the real, life-changing events that are the basis for the play. Designer Max Dorey creates a detailed and naturalistic barn, all the better for the unlikely scene depicting a wedding reception, complete with dodgy disco.

As the men's cantankerous friendship strengthens and deepens, Roberts's modest, but impressively well-made, play expresses the impact of the 2001 crisis in British farming through unashamed nostalgia, beautifully observed humour and, ultimately, undeniable poignancy.

There's another male two-hander set in a barn in Peter Arnott's new lunchtime play His Final Bow. It's April 26, 1865, and we meet John Wilkes Booth (famous actor and Confederate sympathiser, turned assassin of President Abraham Lincoln) and his companion, Davey, hiding on a farm in Virginia.

Arnott is a clever writer with a taste for both history and politics. As he proves here, he also has a considerable facility for satirical humour.

Booth (the son of English Shakespearean actor Junius Brutus Booth, who emigrated to Maryland) is presented as a hellish combination of unbearable, thespianic self-regard, vicious racism and gargantuan delusions of grandeur. James Mackenzie plays the assassin in tremendously bold, comic outline, as he rages against the indignity of being forced to sleep in a barn in, of all places, Virginia, where he should be welcomed as a hero of the struggle against the "tyranny" of the North.

Assisted excellently by Alex Fthenakis (as the energetically sycophantic Davey), Mackenzie offers the most deliciously cartoonish mockery of a 19th-century Southern racist I have seen since Tarantino's 2012 movie Django Unchained.

Arnott's script bristles with 21st-century references, whether in Booth's imagining of the "chaos" of a black president or Davey's dismissal of the press's hostility to Booth, and his promise of "alternative facts". The play loses momentum for a short time, while Arnott gets slightly bogged down in historical exposition. That is only a small blemish, however, on what is a smartly written, nicely acted and, thanks to Ken Alexander, tightly directed historical comedy.

Tour details for And Then Come The Nightjars can be found at: bearoberts.com

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