The White Feather continues at the Union Theatre, London until 17 October.
Rating: three stars ★ ★ ★ ✩ ✩
During the First World War, a movement grew where men who had not signed up for service in the Army were presented with white feathers, a visual motif of cowardice. And while lack of bravery is a theme that runs through Ross Clark’s musical, it is more of a personal and organisational nature, rather than of individual military cowardice, that dominates an occasionally muddled story.
Originally staged as the cheerily titled Shot at Dawn, Clark’s musical centres around Suffolk woman Georgina (Abigail Matthews) and her 16-year-old brother Harry (Adam Pettigrew), who lies about his age to sign up, succumbs to what would later be recognised as shell shock, and has the ultimate sanction carried out by his senior officer after he refuses to go over the top.
But while Harry’s personal story, and Georgina’s fight for justice, run through the play, the burden of moral cowardice is shouldered mainly by the pair’s local landowner, Lord Davey (David Flynn). Introduced as a benevolent and thoughtful manager, through a series of bad decisions and personal failures he ends up destroying the siblings’ lives both literally and figuratively. Throw in some same-sex intrigue and a dash of the women’s suffrage movement, and you end up with a musical that doesn’t seem to have quite decided what its strongest story is, so hedges its bets with several subplots that end up fighting for attention.
The White Feather’s songs are a mixed bag (while Clark is credited with the show’s music and lyrics, the programme also credits unspecified ‘additional songs’ to Matthew Strachan). Several are steeped within the English folk song tradition, which when coupled with some exuberant country dancing (‘It’ll All Be Over By Christmas’) or a fine line in dark humour (‘We Buried a Good Man Today’) lend some much-needed levity to a story which is otherwise necessarily bleak. Others are more modern in tone, and all the more forgettable for it – although the elegiac ‘Set Them in Stone’ is quite beautiful and deserves to be known beyond the confines of this one musical.
Matthews endows Georgina with a sense of youthful optimism that matures into impassioned anger. Coupled with a sensitive vocal performance, her solo numbers and duets are all impeccably performed. Eclipsing all in the vocal performance stakes, though, is Katie Brennan as Georgina’s fire-tempered friend Edith. While it feels as if the character was originally written for an older performer, Brennan grabs both the role and whole stage by both hands, giving the show a much-needed kick into high gear whenever she is on stage. Her rendition of ‘I’ll Tell You What I’m Fighting For’, a rallying cry for a fairer society, successfully stirs the blood and becomes a better evocation of a sense of justice than the musical’s book (co-written by Clark and director Andrew Keates) manages elsewhere.
Neill Brinkworth’s lighting, coupled with a drystone wall-inspired set by Tim McQuillen-Wright, is never over-fussy and often quite beautiful, making good use of shadow and backlighting in simple but effective ways. These aspects of the staging make up for some occasional decisions that, thanks to the Union’s pillared space and limited seating, place some important scenes out of the sight of much of the audience.
Overall, The White Feather does not quite feel that it has earned its changed title. A little more clarity, particularly in the mostly unnecessary prologue and 21st century flash forward, would possibly improve this attempt at tackling a difficult subject, but which is not as brave in doing so as it perhaps thinks it is.