Joana Dias’ set design captures the quaint and rustic Sussex countryside, instantly setting the scene for Flowers of the Field by Kevin Mandry. We are taken back to 1916 where land workers are preparing for the wedding that is to take place the following day.
An unexpected visitor, former soldier Archie Gilligan (played by Josh Taylor), arrives at the home of the Keebles, in search of the traditional English folk songs he fears will soon be lost for ever. Equipped with a revolutionary gramophone-style machine to record the folk songs as they pass the lips of the authentic ‘country folk’, his enthusiasm is met mostly by misunderstanding: for example, the established and merry farmer, Joshua, played comedically by Mac Elsey, proudly sings church hymns as the “songs he knows”.
Isabella Marshall, who plays Sarah, gives a beautiful and honest performance as a young girl lost, wanting to explore the world, but trapped in the confines of farm labour and by her imminent marriage to a man she does not love. Her gentle humour and wide-eyed wonder are engaging and her acute interest in Archie intrigues us: we wonder if they will fall in love in the midnight-lit barn. Their picnic, a selection of treats from Fortnum’s, brought from the city by Archie as fuel for their “escape to London”, intoxicates Sarah with its decadence. They meet in a climax of desperation, trembling and resentful of returning to the way of life that they know, but at the same time realising that they will never be able to change their fate.
Ian Mairs plays George Bainton, the successor to the Keebles’ farm, and soon to be Sarah’s husband. A practical man, his character is played sensitively and with superb physical detail by Mairs. When a conflict arises between George and Mary Keeble (played by Hilary Burns) we find out his plans to change the farm once she retires to live with her relatives. Burns’ portrayal of Mary has the gravitas and honesty of a woman who has lived and loved the land through and through.
Simply and beautifully written, Kevin Mandry’s play captures the heart and soul of an era. Hunger for change murmurs beneath the text and drives the characters forward, whilst the light-hearted folly of day-to-day life rings true throughout. Directed with honesty and simplicity, David Cottis and his actors have brought to life a very charming piece of theatre. Flowers of the Field is a poignant and heart-warming rendering of a heritage that reminds us all of our innate need for music and for love.
Flowers of the Field plays at White Bear Theatre until 13 July. For more information see the White Bear Theatre website.