Set predominantly over the First World War but spanning decades after it, stretching to 1949 and even a scene set in 2006, this new musical tells a tale of love, courage and cowardice and how the three can be interwoven and misperceived. Set in a small East Anglian village in Suffolk, working-class Georgina’s younger brother Harry enlists as a soldier in the war, though he is only 16. Adam Davey, a wealthy land owner and subsequent source of employment for many in the town, enlists reluctantly and is in the same regiment as Harry.
Harry is executed by his own army for cowardice, though nowadays he would be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Georgina does not accept this, and for the rest of her life, she fights for a posthumous pardon. The audience is welcomed into small-town life in the early twentieth century, but the issues that surface include homosexuality and gender roles during that time period. These are cleverly woven into dramatic plot twists that open up each of the characters, giving a fresh perspective on the context of the story.
Music and lyrics are written by Clark, and the book is credited to Clark and also Andrew Keates who directed and developed the show. Together, they have developed a dramatically charged performance that explores an aspect of the Great War that is relatively untouched. Musical arrangements by Dustin Conrad and Martin Coslett, with additional songs by Matthew Strachan, match the striking character of the script with some truly beautiful music, all sung commendably by the cast. The band should also be noted, with Conrad on keys, Sophie Gledhill on cello and Elliot Lyte on violin; in a small space with three instruments, they played an epic and passionate score with great skill, to an effect of grandeur.
The cast comes together splendidly as an ensemble and seem to match each other’s energy and intensity effortlessly. Abigail Matthews is both grounded and passionate as Georgina, powerful as the musical’s central character. David Flynn, as Adam Davey, has a great natural quality onstage, and Adam Pettigrew, as Harry, and Zac Hamilton, as Edward Brown, are nicely balanced against this with their vivacity in their characterisations. As mentioned, it was a fantastic ensemble, but it is hard not to notice Katie Brennan, as Edith, whose terrific presence onstage was a perfect match for the fiery character of Edith.
The production fits in well to the space in the Union Theatre, using malleable set pieces and props to bring to life both the small town in Suffolk and the trenches in the war. The lighting, designed by Neill Brinkworth, is utilised nicely to enhance the dramatic and musical rhythms of the show. There is an epic quality to the musical, perhaps because of the subject matter, which comes across in how the music and performances are framed by the set and lighting. But the intimacy of the story is still prevalent in the cast and their connection with one another. They embody the closeness of a small town warmly, as Clark has done in the text.
The White Feather is an intimate story that speaks of something bigger than Suffolk in 1914. Clark and Keates together have created something that is complex and political as well as entertaining and sympathetic. The characters are well fleshed out in the text and in the music. One may leave the theatre feeling intellectually aroused while wiping a tear from their eye. This feat is admirable and impressive, demonstrating the power of musical theatre to grip an audience in more ways than one. The White Feather is certainly a new musical worth watching.
The White Feather is playing at the Union Theatre until 17th October, Tuesday to Saturday at 7.30pm with matinees on Saturday and Sunday at 2.30pm. Tickets can be purchased here.
Union Theatre, 204 Union St, London, UK, +44 20 7261 9876
By Hayley Ricketson