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Feathers in the Snow

Philip Ridley
Southwark Playhouse

Adam Venus as the Blazerbird Credit: Bronwen Sharp
Ensemble Credit: Bronwen Sharp
Deeivya Meir,as Shylyla and Craig Vye as Jared Credit: Bronwen Sharp
Craig Vye as Jared and, Matthew Hendrickson as Kalef Credit: Bronwen Sharp
Cerith Flinn as Second Neighbour, Craig Vye as Jared and Matthew Hendrickson as First Neighbour Credit: Bronwen Sharp

Things begin with the choice of a husband, a birth and a child who has seen something terrible, a magical bird of which even a feather can bring her happiness and young men who go off to be heroes. All the ingredients of a traditional children’s adventure fantasy are here and, like the old stories, it is infused with a guide to understanding and coping with real life and perhaps to improving it.

Aimed at family audiences, this is fairy tale on an epic scale—except there aren’t any fairies. There is nothing pretty-pretty about it either, though there is beauty. It is a fairytale that might have been told by Brecht or Voltaire. It is funny and human but it looks the harshness of life in the face.

It tells of the pangs of heartbreak, psychological trauma, famine, falsehood and the death and desolation of war. It gives us the creation of new kings and new countries, reflects the real world with an arms race and wars over religion or to distract a nation from domestic problems and unite its people, plus the conflicting histories of both sides. All these things are part of a swift-moving story that is under-laid by a need for a home and happiness and a longing for peace and beauty.

The facts may be harsh but the manner is fresh and hope-filled. Ridley’s springing poetic dialogue sometimes bursts into happy song (music by Nicholas Bicât). There may be suicide, murder and mass slaughter but the violence is handled stylistically. At one point a victim says that it’s too terrible to show, just tell and throughout a succession of different characters takes over telling the story.

The first act gives us the story of Shylyla (Deelvya Meir), her parents Lena (Nelly Harker) and Jared (Craig Vye) and introduces Two Two (also Craig Vye) with whom she sets off to find a new home. A trio of comic neighbours (Matthew Hendrickson, Cerith Flinn and Adam Venus, all in drag) keep things bright, however dark the story, and Adam Venus also (literally) lights things up with his avian-actioned Blazerbird and as a ‘Famous Savage Leopard’.

The second act sees Shylyla and Two Two leading an escape from war to find a new home. It is a dangerous ocean-crossing journey but things don’t end with landfall and creating a new kingdom, the story goes on for centuries; all human history is here.

Ridley doesn’t give his Blazerbird any clear significance. You can interpret it as anything that brings human happiness, perhaps love, hope or art and culture, belief and faith—whether religious or ideological. He may resort to a magical rescue, a fairytale equivalent of deus ex machina, to give his world a new start and ensure a fairytale happy ending, but he leaves the resolution open as they step forward singing into the unknown.

This is one of those productions that looks simply-staged with not much more than a bare floor and the audience on three sides, but it is a complex mix in which design (Simon Kenny), lighting (Gary Bowman) and choreography (Yael Loewenstein) all contribute considerably under David Mercatall’s direction to create a show that is a positive joy.

As well as the cast already mentioned (who all play several other roles), 24 of over 70 named characters are played by members of an ensemble drawn from the Southwark Playhouse Young Company, set up to give people aged 16-25 with little or no formal drama training or acting experience the opportunity to “get involved, get some skills and get on stage”. And I am not being patronising when I say “didn’t they do well”. The demands made on them are considerable and they handle them like professionals and with consummate teamwork.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton