At times, The White Feather is a gentle, beautiful drama that explores cowardice and injustice in WWI. However, it also suffers from a lack of narrative focus that hampers enjoyment.
Set in 1940s Suffolk, this is the story of a rural community coming to terms with the impact of war. Young boys sign up to the war effort, noble men try to escape their duty, and women are left to pick up the pieces. When her brother Harry leaves for war, young Georgina Briggs must hold together her family and is eventually bullied by her community when news breaks her brother was executed as a coward. Worse, she’s unwittingly married her brother’s executioner. What follows is her quest for justice.
Yet this plot plays out in a variety of time periods as a cyclical narrative, but these feel less than distinct and only serve to confuse. Moreover, there is no clear lead protagonist to guide us through. The programme suggests it should be Georgina, but the plot flits between her, Harry, her husband and other members of the cast. Who’s story is this? Really this is the story of a woman seeking posthumous justice for a terrible tragedy, but it meanders in long-winded fashion along the way. And whilst the second act is more focussed on Georgina’s quest for justice, writers Ross Clark and Andrew Keates have still managed to shoehorn in a forced gay narrative, as well as a token song for women’s’ rights. There are some incredibly poignant themes here, but the show doesn’t reach its full potential.
Fittingly, this is very much an ensemble performance and the cast are strong. There is some spirited and passionate singing, most of all from Abigail Matthews as Georgina, whose soprano voice is light and pure, yet with an emotional punch. Katie Brennan also excels as Georgina’s bolshy, sisterly friend Edith to bring some light comedy, whilst Adam Pettigrew offer a sensitive portrayal as Harry.
It’s in its mood that The White Feather transcends its script. There’s a great sense of hushed reverence about the piece, with simple yet effective staging and evocative lighting setting the scene. The music (from Ross Clark, with arrangements by Dustin Conrad and Martin Coslett) is the main attraction here though, creating subtle ambience with just piano, cello and violin. The lilting folk melodies are not only authentic to the setting, but are tenderly sung by the young cast and gracefully accompanied by mournful strings. Together with Andrew Keates’ direction, there are some powerful moments – one particular song in which a letter is censored through silence is especially effective.
For all the failures of its overly ambitious book, The White Feather is a delicate depiction of a wartime tragedy that is often beautifully played.
Watch: The White Feather runs at the Union Theatre until 17th October.
Photos: Scott Rylander