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Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang
Published on Sunday, 18 August 2013
3

3 stars

Gryphon Venues at the Point Hotel (venue website)
Theatre
5-10, 12-17, 19-24 Aug, 9:45pm-11:15pm
Reviewed by Richard Stamp

 Recommended for age 14+ only.

There’s a dignified simplicity to this two-man play, embodied first of all by its sparse, plain-white set. With toppled columns surrounding a broken church window, it instantly conveys a sense of both time and context: we’re in the reign of Henry VIII, during the dissolution of the monasteries, witnessing the end of a centuries-old way of life. Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang proves a surprisingly funny and unexpectedly saucy play – a monastic sit-com, with a few elements of Carry On thrown in. Beneath the humour, though, lies an ever-present undertone of impending separation and loss.

There’s an inherent comedy in the mismatched pairing of actors John Burrows and David Brett.  The former’s tall and rangy, the latter distinctly compact – and the physical humour between them works well throughout the piece.  There are some genuine comic high notes in the script as well, and a constant drip-feed of entertaining anachronisms (some of which are sacrilegiously profane).  But with each actor playing many roles, keeping track of the numerous monks proved challenging.  And I did grow a little weary of seeing them leap around the stage to converse with themselves; it was funny the first few times, but after that it started to feel more like bad planning.

At times the plot seems like it’s just a series of obscure excuses for innuendo, but there’s a serious tale under the surface – telling of the brutal machinations of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s vicar general, who oversaw the destruction of the old religious orders as England split from the Catholic Church.  As the two narrators, Brothers Adam and Stephen, recall their history of laddish scrapes, the true historical context is skilfully and gently dropped in.  By the end, I’d found myself truly identifying with the doomed monastery and its hopelessly compromised abbot.

It must be said, however, that the whole play proceeds at a monkishly contemplative pace.  The delivery is thoughtful and relaxed – which, in itself, is a pleasant counterpoint to the generally full-throttle Fringe – but the script also repeats itself a few too many times, sometimes for humour value but often seemingly for no particular reason.  The play is 90 minutes long, yet I left with the feeling that it could be cut down to the regulation hour without actually excising anything of significance at all.

In summary, for all its ooh-matron humour, this is a very gentle piece: well-acted and well-presented, but rather too short on actual plot.  Still, there’s a twist that comes towards the end, and a genuinely touching conclusion which does a lot to justify all that’s gone before.  So if you’re up for an easy-going 90-minute show to wind down your day at the Fringe, it’s worth considering a pilgrimage to this one.

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