Lead Feathers has massive boots to fill. Hilary’s Bluebeard, also written by Howard Coase and Douglas Grant, was practically perfect. Lead Feathers should be judged on its own merits but its staging – comfy chairs, cups of tea, a darkened BT studio – is reminiscent of Bluebeard and so the two inevitably invite comparison from the moment you sit down.
Instead of a care home, the armchairs belong to a family home in Kent in 1919; the mood is tentatively hopeful and very British, as characters busy themselves with funerals and the return to normality. A lone white feather decorates a screen to the right of the stage, which is covered in chicken wire and sown with poppies. The war is over and we find likeable Charles (James Colenutt), complete with medals and a knee injury, home at last with his wife Jane (Emily Troup) and daughter Elsie (Maddy Herbert).
Charles has an easy manner and he contrasts instantly with the family’s thin-lipped, slightly creepy neighbour Robert (Jack Wightman). Robert and his wife Cynthia (Tori McKenna) provide the stiff counterpart to Charles and Jane’s loving, gently teasing marriage: both couples are constantly referring to their shared past, but also to the long time they have spent apart. Suspense builds: we do not understand Elsie’s obvious animosity towards Robert; we cannot understand why Cynthia is not happy to be reunited with her husband.
Conscientious objection has been hinted at by the play’s title, marketing and staging but the topic is only breached by Robert around twenty minutes in. He was supposed to object with Charles, but in the end Charles fought in France and came home a hero. Robert, by contrast, spent three years being ostracised and imprisoned in Britan. The play picks up at the two couples’ reunion and offers a careful examination of the relative morality of objecting, fighting and deserting; it offers no didactic message, but plays heavily on the gulf between rhetoric (‘defending one’s country’) and the grim reality of living in a ditch for years on end.
The history of the thing can feel heavy-handed. We are reminded of the Freikorps, of posttraumatic stress disorder, of Amiens, of ‘conchies’, of the suffragists and the suffragettes. The opening felt at points like a rewriting of my GCSE source paper: beautifully translated to stage, but trying to cover every wartime and post-war social phenomenon at once.
Robert’s long-awaited mention of ‘objecting’ finally explained the tensions between the characters. This was the climax of the first of two long bouts of suspense drawn out by the script: I will not spoil the other, but I found myself frustrated by unanswered questions for at least two thirds of the play. Suspense was brilliantly built and broken, but suspense and speeches about the ‘horrors of war’ detracted from smaller-scale human details which embroider the script.
The best of these were the oral sketches of the world around the protagonists: at one point Jane describes how earlier she saw a man with a moustache on a train whose face was immobile. She later realised that he was wearing a mask which had been moulded to his features in order to conceal his facial injuries. Another brief section saw Elsie collecting up teacups and reading books to music while she waited for her parents to return from the theatre. This was a simple yet charming interlude which demonstrated mature direction: the audience were allowed to immerse themselves in another era and digest what they had already seen.
The script is not as strong as Bluebeard’s in terms of resonance and characterisation, but its cast is bigger and its scope far more broad. McKenna’s performance is consistently strong, while Colenutt and Troup’s marriage – culminating in a wrought final scene – is entirely believable and faultlessly executed. Lead Feathers is an ambitious but assured production and a credit to new writing.