Bea Roberts’ award winning play And The Come the Nightjars is an incredible, but delicate piece of theatre set during the outbreak of foot and mouth disease in rural Devon. It centres on two characters; a dairy farmer and a vet, who have clearly known one another for a long time and during the play we really see this relationship pushed to breaking point.
Currently at the Bristol Old Vic following its debut at Theatre 503, Roberts manages to subtly tell the horrific story of how the 2001 outbreak ripped apart the countryside and the lives of farmers and rural communities with humour and a genuine sense of understanding.
Michael, an already elderly farmer at the start, and Jeff the head vet in the area have history. We know this through the muttered comments, and half conversations they exchange. They understand one another.
When Jeff is faced with the reality of slaughtering Michael’s perfectly health prize-winning cattle, by order of the government, the emotions of the play really run high.
David Fielder, who plays Michael, shows the strength of a man who has worked the land his whole life. resilient and tough but entirely devoted to his ‘girls’, the dairy cows, who descended from his fathers cows. Fielder really did seem to decline in health during the play, and the passing of time seemed so evident.
Jeff was played by Nigel Hastings, who to begin with played a vet who seemed out of place in the Devon countryside, as though he would be so much more at home in Surrey, but as the play progresses and his character is changed by the events, you see the person who was born and bred in Devon come through.
Both characters are so well drawn, and I don’t recall seeing a relationship between two men move me so much. I think this is what Tim Crouch was aiming for in What Happens to Hope at The End of the Night, and he didn’t quite make it. But Bea did.
The set it the same set, transferred from Theatre503 and adapted to fit the larger space of Bristol Old Vic’s Studio., and it has so much detail. From the real farm-yard equipment and hay bales, to the cobwebs in the eaves.
And Then Comes the Nightjars is unafraid of silent moments, sometimes with Michael and Jeff on stage, sometimes an empty stage. I really enjoyed a moment in the middle of the play where time passes, and all we see is the changing colour of the sun through the seasons, filtering in through the wooden slats of the barn. The composer Olly Fox I assume was responsible for the music, and is was so well judged and complemented the moment without taking away from the emotion at the height of the play.
This is a beautifully written story, that says such much about British agriculture. This period in farming history can’t be forgotten about, for the people who suffered and lost what generations had built up. And The Come the Nightjars is a worthy memorial.
And The Come the Nightjars continues its run at Bristol Old Vic until Saturday 17th October, get tickets here.