Nearly 60 years ago, Kenneth Tynan saw in Tabitha what yesterday I saw in Lead Feathers:
At discreet intervals, a ‘plot point’ is made; between points, the characters brew tea, drink whisky and chat quietly among themselves. During these interludes, I submit, it would be a courtesy on the part of the management to turn on the house lights and serve tea and whisky to the audience, but I suppose one cannot have everything.
What is more, both plays are co-authored: the former by Arnold Ridley and Mary Cathcart Borer; the latter by two Trinity undergraduates, Howard Coase and Douglas Grant.
I am glad to say the similarity ends there. Lead Feathers begins with tea, but ends with gulps of whisky. In what could be a series of psychotherapy sessions which punctuate the narrative (as in some Woody Allen films), characters break down, yell and smoulder. In Lead Feathers, actors may unleash what Tabitha decisively lacks: the heat of drama.
The setting is England in early 1919 and the subject is trauma. Memories of the battlefield haunt Charles, while Robert, who refused to enlist, still suffers from social stigma. Together with their wives, Jane and Cynthia respectively, they meet for the first time since 1914. Tension germinates apace. Picture two students who promise to apply to Oxford for fun. One secretly decides to swot up on his Latin and secures an offer; the other founders as planned. They see each other the following summer. Imagine their unease, scale it up by twenty, and you should have an idea of the conflict at hand.
Strong acting proves to be the linchpin of the production’s success. Emily Troup’s Jane is the compleat school matron, full of goodwill and a vital desire to talk nonstop. Her daughter, Elsie, is played by Maddy Herbert, who does well as the adolescent cynic. Jack Wightman fumes and quakes as Robert, but never quite erupts. His tantrums are anaemic, and suitably so: impotence befits someone who has been branded a coward and showered with feathers from the locals.
Tori McKenna, though potentially a fine actress, cannot choose between looking picturesque and emotional. Her lips are to blame. A melancholy expression might begin to spread across her face, and then part her lips, and she becomes a pretty portrait. When she wants to appear enthusiastic, again her mouth half-opens, and she seems more sybaritic, or perhaps syphilitic. For sultry Hollywood starlets in a romcom the habit is becoming, but not for McKenna portraying a distressed woman who has an outcast for a husband. At a couple of high-strung moments, McKenna cups her hand over her mouth in dread, which I should think is one way of solving the problem.
James Colenutt’s part, Charles, calls for the widest range of emotions, and Colenutt does it the fullest justice. His changes in gear are executed with velvet smoothness. He bubbles wonderfully, fuelled by a good drink and a spoonful of misogyny; moments later, he broods across the stage and congeals with torment. Except a few instances of inaudibility, his acting is superb.
Overall, Lead Feathers is in itself no masterpiece. Its themes and thoughts are mostly commonplaces, such as the crushing of pre-war optimism. That said, it is a play in which the actors can thrive and sparkle. Many Italian operas, after all, are great only since they inspire the singers to greatness. In the current production, the entire cast, without exception, performs admirably.
PHOTO / Lead Feathers