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THE WHITE FEATHER – The Union Theatre, London.

The White FeatherIn its world premier, The White Feather, written by Ross Clark (book and music & lyrics) and directed by Andrew Keates, that follows one woman’s tireless fight to restore her brother’s honour after he is executed by his own side for laying down his weapon on the battlefield during The Great War.  Spanning the years before, during and after the war, both on the front and in a small Suffolk farming village, the story centres on sixteen year old Harry Briggs (Adam Pettigrew). Joining the army underage as a way out of his rural life, he is eager to fight for his country. His sister Georgina (Abigail Matthews), feeling a responsibility to protect him after the recent death of their father, is reluctant to let him leave.

The trauma of the events he witnesses prove too much for Harry. What we now know to be Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a century ago was thought of very differently. Sufferers were branded as weak and cowardly and the stigma attached to the illness brought shame to their families. The Briggs’ story highlights the struggles many relatives faced, and packs a punch for the fact that it is based on truth. The boys who signed up to fight were sold on a lie, believing the war would be over in a matter of months, and were completely unprepared for what awaited them when they landed in France. In the central performance, Matthews shines as the stoic and determined Georgina, and has a beautiful voice to boot. Despite all the obstacles she comes up against she is not deterred from seeking the truth that she knows in her heart; that Harry was wrongfully accused.

The White Feather crams a lot into its plot. We meet Adam Davey (David Flynn), owner of the land where Harry was a labourer who later becomes his Commanding Officer in the army, and Edward (Zac Hamilton) one of his employees who may or may not be faking an injury to avoid conscription. They are both fighting their own demons, but despite strong performances it is difficult to sympathise with them. At times the glimpses into the lives of the other characters are beautiful, but in other moments it feels too crowded.

The White FeatherMusically, The White Feather is simple, the band consisting of only a piano, cello and violin, but far from being a negative, it lends a lilting country gentleness to the piece. Swaying between emotional ballads and light-hearted drinking songs, there is a surprising diversity in the score. ‘In Paris We Learn to Dance’ sung by Hannah (Kathryn Rutherford) and Emma (Cameron Leigh) about their plans for the future, and ‘I’ll Tell You What I’m Fighting For’ lead by the brash but lovable Edith (Katie Brennan) are highlights.

The design, from the set (Tim McQuillen-Wright) and costumes (Natasha Prynne), to the sound (James Nicholson) and lighting (Neill Brinkworth) work together to conjure both the peaceful countryside and intense battlefields. It is the lighting that creates one of the most affecting moments of the show, Harry recites aloud a letter home, as far away Georgina reads it, but his words have been censored so we only get tiny snippets of his thoughts.

The story being told is powerful enough to eclipse any problems, though very few, with the production itself. Performed with heart and passion, in moments it is truly wonderful and should be celebrated for telling such an important story. The only fault of The White Feather, in many ways, is that the running time is not long enough to do true service to all aspects of the story.

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Reviewed 18/092015

By Catherine Duffy

16th September – 17th October 2015
The Union Theatre, London SE1 0LX.

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