Edinburgh Fringe 2013
Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang
Sweet Bird Productions
Venue: Gryphon Venues at the Point Hotel
The story of Br Adam and Br Stephen as they struggle to deal with the fast changing world of Henry VIII’s Reformation and the impact that will have on their lives in an abbey.
The play opens with Br Adam and Br Stephen setting the scene with a little historical exposition on the dissolution of the monasteries. The result was that the play felt a little slow to start – establishing the key characters first would have grabbed our attention more. Having said that, once the two actors (David Brett and John Burrows) ceased being statues and adopted their core characters, Br Adam and Br Stephen, the story and the action took off and held us entranced.
There are multiple characters in the play including the Abbott, the Abbott’s lacivious brother, his wife, maid servants, several other monks and Dr Layton – the feared envoy of the Vicar General, Thomas Cromwell. Brett and Burrows play every character, slipping in and out of them with shifts in voice, stance, expression and mannerisms. Their approach is styalised as they dash between positions on the stage to speak as each different character, an approach that risks losing both the pace and the plot. However, the energy that Brett and Burrows bring to every element means that, contrary to expectations, the pace rarely flags and we are swept along in the story.
There are a few places where the script could be polished to avoid those slightly artificial moments where one character is telling another something he would obviously know which detract a little from what is otherwise excellent writing.
The set is simple and all in white with two statue plinths and a number of fallen candle pillars that the brothers reset in the course of starting the play. There are almost no props, with any essentials mimed or described as part of the storytelling.
The flyer blurb dsecribes it as ‘Carry On meets Hilary Mantel’* but that underestimates the power of the threads of story: the relationship between the two monks, the fear and uncertainty they faced as their way of life came under threat, the hierachy of a monastery as well as the more comical elements. The quality of the writing lies in the light touch Burrows takes – nothing is overstated and there is a nice contrast between the serious and the comical – the recurrent motif of the fate of the monastery’s holy relic is a particular delight.
Sadly, this play is suffering from being at the wrong time of day. The daily Fringe cycle where most theatre, and specifically this type of gentle comedy, is early in the day means that many who would enjoy it simply haven’t noticed it or already have plans for the evening.
A sixteenth century romp with lyrical language. Touching, captivating and well worth the effort of going to one of the central Fringe venues.
*The reviewer admits to never having read any Mantel!