“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.” Bea Roberts, playwright, hails from Devon – and is proud to do so. Not in a misty-eyed God’s Own Country way or in a ‘and then I escaped to London’ way, but in an understated and quietly confident way. She knows the land and knows what the countryside is really like, particularly how it doesn’t conform to being all about peace and quiet. Her latest work, And Then Come the Nightjars (currently earning both rave reviews and six Offie nominations at Theatre 503 in London, before transferring to the Bristol Old Vic at the start of October) is specifically about a time when life in the rolling hills was not pleasant in the slightest, during the Foot-and-Mouth crisis of 2001.
Like Bea, I also grew up in the West Country, in neighbouring Somerset, and remember the crisis, washing up bowls of disinfectant positioned at gateposts and constant rumours of farmers just out of town burning their cattle. Bea remembers it as “being quite a scary and confusing time.” A thought I can echo, recalling the low-humming fear that the dairy farm of a friend at school might become infected on any given day, that washing wellies might not be enough. In order to research Nightjars, Roberts went back to Devon to talk to farmers affected. “Going back to the subject as an adult I did a lot of research and then the director, Paul Robinson, and the team went to a farm in Okehampton that had been badly affected and spoke to the family there about their experiences. Within a few minutes of speaking about his memories to Paul, the farmer was in tears. It really was a tragedy for many people across the country and I think it’s really good if we can mark it and talk about more.”
Despite the play being about a very melancholy subject, there is also a lighter side to it, contingent with Robert’s website bio stating “I’m interested in writing honest and irreverent drama and comedy that is compassionate and socially aware.” Nightjars hits this combination of unassuming social awareness with empathy well, as alongside the main story of Foot-And-Mouth is a narrative of friendship between two unlikely allies, a vet and a farmer. Roberts explains, “The Foot and Mouth crisis put real strain on people’s relationships with each other, with the government and with the land itself. Jeff and Michael find themselves pitted against one another due to circumstance but I didn’t want to leave the story there. Farming communities had to find a way to pick themselves up and carry on so, for me, that was just as important to the story as the crisis itself, that’s why we follow their friendship for so many years.” Additionally, if that still feels a bit too solemn, she assures us that “it’s a play about friendship and survival so there’s a lot of comedy in it too!”
Comedic or not, the production’s most lingering impression on many critics seems to be of a place and time that no longer exists. Maddy Costa’s beautiful review for Exeunt of the London performance captured this feeling, centering her review around words deleted from the Oxford Junior dictionary: “blackberry, bluebell, bramble, bray; carnation, catkin, chestnut, clover; gorse, hazel, walnut, willow.” Or, as Aleks Sierz reflected, “Between Grand Designs and new branches of Tesco, a little bit of country life has died, and Roberts writes its obituary with striking sincerity, humour and integrity.” Somehow only a playwright properly ensconced in rural life could have produced a play that bookmarked a time past without this becoming an unthinking rose-tinted vision of tweeness. That Roberts is able to and tries “to set all of my work in the West Country – I’m becoming increasingly militant about it!” forges a key place for her future works on stage. Her intent, to depict “contemporary rural life on stage in a way that is thoughtful, intelligent and bears some relation to reality!” seems modest on the surface but is in many ways highly ambitious.
Aside from the influence of the rural West Country life in Roberts’ work and career, the city of Bristol where she studied as an undergraduate has also been important, promising a very welcoming audience when Nightjars comes to the Bristol Old Vic in a few weeks time. It’s almost impossible to pontificate on how things might have been had she chosen to study elsewhere, but Roberts is happy to talk about the Bristol arts scene. “Both when I was a student and now, Bristol is home to a fantastically diverse and fertile performance scene which encompasses theatre, comedy, performance art, dance, circus and music. There’s a wonderful community here and sense of DIY possibility – people just set up their own pop up theatres and put nights on in amazing places all over the city. The student union drama scene was an invaluable grounding in working out how to make stuff and have a go. I still see work from brilliant young theatre makers coming out of that system and from UWE. I think Bristol is small enough to get a sense of community and big enough to house diversity, I love it.”
As a critic, Bristol is one of the best cities outside of London (and Edinburgh in August) to be working in (she said, with blatant bias). Within a short distance of one another we have the Bristol Hippodrome, The Bristol Old Vic and Studio, the Tobacco Factory and Brewery Theatres, and Circomedia (a personal favourite). Not to mention numerous other small venues such as the Alma Tavern, the Wardrobe theatre and university theatres like the Wickham, plus a proclivity for pop-up events like the recent Stick House under Temple Meads and Mayfest’s appropriation of wonderful venues such as Bristol Central Library and Millennium Square. But before I start sounding too much like I’m sponsored by George Ferguson, it’s worth noting that Bristol, in the opinion of Roberts, is as vulnerable as other cities across the UK. “Bristol, like everywhere else in the country, is definitely suffering from the massive governmental cuts to arts funding. I think as an arts community we’re pretty robust and used to working on a shoe string so my main hope is that we can band together, keep producing work, keep outreach work active and keep creating opportunities for young people to get involved.”
Following Nightjars, Roberts’ next work is hopefully a “new comedy about a Bed and Breakfast landlady who gets embroiled in the world of fetish, sort of like a more filthy Keeping Up Appearances.” Far from being the artistic recluse, Roberts loves “hearing from people and talking to audiences after shows so if you ever spot me, please come and say hello!” a good natured attitude which suggests such a comedy would be suitably warm and humourous. It also promised that from now until far into the future, this is a playwright whose works will resonate with audiences whether or not the life they depict is already long gone.