I was 11 in 2001, and I vaguely remember headlines at the time about the foot and mouth crisis. Despite the fact that I’m from West Country rural Dorset, it always seemed like it was something that I was relatively removed from, perhaps in the way that all things on the news do to a child. And Then Come The Nightjars, a play that is ostensibly about disease-ridden cows, had me pretty close to tears a couple of times (with “pretty close to tears” being man-talk for actual tears). That’s right, I cried to a play about cows. And I’m absolutely not ashamed to admit it. Bea Roberts’s writing is so heart-wrenching, Paul Robinson’s direction so first class and David Fielder’s and Nigel Hastings’s acting so spot-on that I challenge the most emotionally devoid theatregoer to watch this play and fail to be moved. Yet Nightjars is also quite funny.
One scene that sticks out in my mind is midway through the play when Fielder’s herdsman Michael is told by Hastings’s veterinarian Jeff that his whole herd is scheduled to be slaughtered, against his wishes. After a fast-paced argument Fielder’s textured face is hewn with emotion as he mews “please don’t take my girls”. It’s at that moment that the ingenuity of Roberts’s writing becomes so evident. She takes a play about a potentially banal subject matter and humanises it, engendering pathos and empathy for this poor man. Fielder is clearly a master of his craft, and speaking to him briefly after the show to congratulate him on a fine performance, I was struck by how softly spoken and articulate he was. It was a far cry from the occasionally brash, thickly accented Devonian he portrays on stage, and a real Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club-esque calibre transformation. Hastings is perfect as the less colloquial Jeff, and the pair complement each other with little room for improvement in this hour-long production.
The actors are also backed up by a fine production team, with the creative decisions throughout – from the staging to the lighting – excellently conceived by Robinson and co. A fairly unchanging set doesn’t detract at all from the performance, and with such fine attention to detail, it doesn’t need mixing up.
What should be slightly worrying for rival fringe theatres throughout London, is that Nightjars was only the joint winner of Theatre 503’s inaugural Playwright of the Year Award, the other being Valhalla, running there from 30 September. With the standard this high from the first, Theatre 503 looks to be set for a double-whammy of superiority.
This means that, unfortunately, the London run of Nightjars is soon to come to an end. If you should find yourself in Bristol between 6-17 October however, with not a clue of what to do, I’d urge you to skip the Clifton Suspension Bridge (it’s not going anywhere) and visit the Bristol Old Vic for a showing.
And Then Come The Nightjars is playing at Theatre 503 until 26 September. For more information and tickets, see the Theatre 503 website.