You wait years for a play about men hanging out in a barn, then two come along in a week. The best of these is His Final Bow, a punchy lunchtime play by Peter Arnott that imagines the last days of actor John Wilkes Booth after he shot President Abraham Lincoln in the back of the head. On the run with a star-struck sympathiser, the pro-slavery supporter takes refuge on a Virginian farm in the vain hope of escaping the authorities. It’s not a spoiler to say things don’t end well for him.
His Final Bow ****
Oran Mor, Glasgow
And Then Come The Nightjars ***
Byre Theatre, St Andrews
All Or Nothing ***
Theatre Royal, Glasgow
Arnott has fun with the idea that Booth, being part of a theatrical dynasty, is primarily concerned about how the assassination has gone down with his public. Having committed his act of treachery in a theatre, he seems less like a man fleeing the law than a tragedian awaiting his curtain call. Played by James Mackenzie with a funny mixture of actorly panache and emotional neediness, he imagines himself in the heroic role of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, while failing to distinguish between newspaper reports and theatre reviews, dismissing the headline news like so many bad notices.
But there’s more going on here than a theatrical in-joke. It’s partly that Arnott takes a hard and disturbing look at Booth’s racist politics. The actor’s contempt for African Americans and belief in white superiority is profound – profound enough to justify murdering a president on the assumption that the South would be “avenged”. The idea of black citizenship appals him. Such sentiments may be less openly expressed today, but the roots of racist attitudes in the USA lie here.
More pertinent still is the portrayal of a man utterly convinced of his own rightness. This may be 150 years before social media, but Booth is operating in a political echo chamber, an activist in a narcissistic bubble, too blinkered to realise his actions will not be widely applauded. Such is the scale of his self-delusion he is genuinely aghast to learn of Lincoln’s posthumous tour – and not only because the touring circuit is something he yearns for.
As his companion, Alex Fthenakis is only too eager to flatter Booth’s ego and protect his fragile sense of self. In Ken Alexander’s tight production, en route to Edinburgh and Aberdeen, he is the straight man feeding, nourishing and placating Mackenzie’s comic monster. No doubt there are a few people playing the same role in the White House today.
You could argue Arnott’s play is more a character study – or an entertaining scene from a longer play – than a fully fledged drama. It does, though, have a clearer sense of purpose than this week’s second barn play, And Then Come The Nightjars. Staged originally in London and Bristol and now revived for a rural tour by Perth Theatre, the two-hander by Bea Roberts charts the relationship between a Devon farmer and a vet between the foot-and-mouth crisis of 2001 and the present day, when fields are being turned into coyly named housing estates.
That may suggest a piece fuelled by anger at land mismanagement, but here the changing backdrop seems no more than a cause for wistful nostalgia. The two men get older, wiser, more sober and more sentimental, while looking helplessly on. At the end of the 75-minute running time, there’s an odd sensation of the play not having started.
All the same, it’s immaculately produced. The lifelike barn is gorgeously realised by designer Max Dorey, with Sally Ferguson’s lighting filtering through the skylights and beams to mark the passing seasons. In Paul Robinson’s production, Finlay Welsh as the farmer and Nigel Hastings as his visitor are all short fuses and squabbles, slowly revealing their vulnerabilities and loneliness in the face of death and divorce – but perhaps underplaying the rage at the outside world that would articulate the play’s deeper concerns.
Yet more bickering men at Glasgow’s Theatre Royal, where Carol Harrison writes, directs and stars (as Steve Marriott’s mum) in All or Nothing, a loving tribute to the Small Faces. Telling the story of the band’s brief but brilliant rise from working-class mods to card-carrying hippies, the show does have three things working against it.
One, the band’s story is low on dramatic interest; it’s a routine tale of artistic differences and exploitative managers. Two, apart from the egotistical Marriott, Harrison finds few character traits to distinguish one band member from another in the way you could do with, say, John, Paul, George and Ringo. And three, the real-life story ends in such a depressing mess of recrimination, addiction and regret that it’s hard not to make the evening a bit of a downer.
It’s to Harrison’s credit, therefore, that she marshals a perky production, clearly loved by diehard fans and enlivened by spirited renditions of the title track, Lazy Sunday and Itchycoo Park.
His Final Bow, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 18–22 April; Lemon Tree, Aberdeen, 25–29 April. And Then Come The Nightjars, on tour until 29 April. All Or Nothing, run ended