As revolutions go, greater representation of the British countryside on stage might seem like a modest one. Yet for those familiar with both life outside of urbanity and much of what is on theatre and television, it’s more than a fair point to make. Rural life is itself a phrase given to various pokey museums in Glastonbury and the like, and suggests that ‘rural life’ itself or rather life in rural locations is literally from another era. If you do come across a bit of non-city living serving as a setting, it’s either played for flat-out comedy like Hot Fuzz or twee idiocy like the Archers, complete with the bloody stupid name of Borsetshire. I hate Borsetshire like I hate every tit who ever went ‘Ooh Arrrrh!’ in response to knowing I am from Somerset.
The ‘Ooh Arrrh’ sound effects were normally quickly followed by the comment “But you don’t have a West Country accent,” implying that I was an imposter or ashamed of my heritage and deliberately changing my voice, or both. This is relevant because one of the first (of many) great things about And Then Come the Nightjars, is that only 50% of the (two) characters on stage have identifiably ‘West Country’ accents, and the one who does sounds pleasantly guttural and more like a tractor engine that an agitated donkey (a bizarre twangy addition in many people’s renditions of the accent). The other character, posho vet Jeff sounds like, well, a middle class vet from pretty much anywhere in southern England.
It’s a small point, but one that automatically makes Nightjars far more realistic than around 80% of other renditions of the countryside. Similarly, Michael the farmer who does have a broad accent doesn’t spend the play talking like a poor man in Lorna Doone with a vocabulary full of those adorable dialectal words you got given a NT book full of last Christmas titled, say, ‘The Lost Dialects of England’. When I studied English at university I was told that, “In Somerset they use the word tor for hill.” Which is roughly true in the case of Glastonbury Tor or whatever, but not On A Regular Basis. Like, no one actually says, “I live on the house half way up the tor.” Or at least haven’t for hundreds of years. But we were in London so everyone wrote this in their notebooks anyhow.
Instead, the features of Michael and Jeff’s speech with tie them to the land they live on is instead found in place names and references to all the tacky crap that accompanies life out yonder there such as every celebration being marked by DJ Dave, rocking all the way from Tiverton to Exeter and back again with Agadoo sound tracking the A38. This non-chocolate box version of countryside living is normally ignored by people who would rather believe that all sex in the shires happens in a hay bale and all drinks consumed are cider (with bits in).
In at interview with myself a few weeks ago, playwright Bea Roberts declared, “It drives me nutty that the countryside is so underrepresented on stage and on TV, except for as a butt of people’s jokes or as the home of cosy chocolate boxy drama.” Through seemingly subtle changes – an accent correctly missing, the choice of a bad disco over a luteplayer in a field – Nightjars succeeds in fulfilling the wish to represent something so infrequently seen on stage.
Additionally, it also succeeds in being both heartbreaking – I could have sobbed like a child as the sound of gunshots started just off stage – and very funny, offering more opportunities for tears and cheers in quick succession than even the GBBO final could possibly pack in. Nightjars is an accurate portrayal of countryside existence, but it is also an accurate portrayal of loss and friendship on a much wider level. Above anything, what comes across in the barn as Michael begs – and then threatens – Jeff to intervene in the slaughtering of all his prizewinning cattle, is the sheer unfairness of it all. The sense of hopelessness bought about by orders from above, both those coming from the government and those from some other, celestial force. The terribleness of having every last piece of your life disrupted by things beyond your control and, eventually, the beauty of laughter and a good friend to help bind the smashed pieces.