Review: A touching tale of friendship told with tragedy and humour

Finlay Welsh and Nigel Hastings in And Then Come the Nightjars. Photograph by Steve Barber
Finlay Welsh and Nigel Hastings in And Then Come the Nightjars. Photograph by Steve Barber

It’s surprising how the simplest of settings can provide the perfect backdrop to a story.

In And Then Come the Nightjars at the Byre Theatre, St Andrews, the action takes place in one end of a cow barn and by paring back unnecessary detail, the focus is on the relationship between the only two characters, Michael the cattle farmer and Jeff the vet, deftly played by Finlay Welsh and Nigel Hastings.

Both men have problems, but their begrudging respect and affection for one another evolves as the story unfolds by looking back as much as moving forward – shared reminiscences fill in the back story.

There is much to laugh at in the banter that underpins most of their relationship, but then tears well at the raw grief of a farmer seeing his life’s work, and that of generations before him, ripped brutally away.

The setting is South Devon but it is 2001 and with foot and mouth disease wreaking havoc in the countryside it could just as easily have been anywhere in the Britain.

Michael is helpless to stop the slaughter of his healthy beloved cows and rails at Jeff as if betrayed. One of the most touching scenes is when he grabs an old tin box from the shelf and starts despairingly naming the rosettes won at county shows as if the heritage of his beasts can save them.

He is so close to the edge you feel for a second as if he could as easily turn his shotgun on himself as brandish it at the government officials who want access to his farm.

The play captures a period of time when the way of life is changing in the countryside but the theme of male friendship is timeless.

Finlay Welsh nails his performance as a the widowed farmer trying to find a way forward while Nigel Hastings brings depth to the role of a man whose life is unravelling before his eyes. Life’s ups and downs are the rollercoaster of their journey and by turns both men are as much rescued and rescuer.

Praise also has to go to the staging, in particular the great use of lighting to create atmosphere and measure the passing of time.

It is a cleverly crafted play by young playwright Bea Roberts and is a joint venture by Perth Theatre and Theatre by the Lake, Keswick, who have teamed up to take the Theatre503 and Bristol Old Vic’s production on tour.

Last week’s performance in St Andrews was warmly welcomed by an appreciative audience. We can only hope that more work of this quality finds room at The Byre.