Feathers in the Snow, by seasoned playwright and award-winning children's novelist Philip Ridley, begins with a woman, Lena, standing on top of a hill and looking at the stars. She is approached by two men, who tell her she must decide which of them she will marry. After a bit of verbal sparring, she chooses, thereby setting in motion events that will span hundreds of years. She gives birth to a beautiful daughter, Shylyla, who will survive the war that kills her family, and will found her own civilisation – named after the brightly-coloured Blazerbird she falls in love with – and with its own enemy state.
The whole process of the birth and destruction of nations begins again, and the story ends with Shylyla's mother's great-great-great (etc etc) granddaughter, Lena II, recalling that decision her distant ancestor once made, as she stood on a hill, about who to marry. What's brilliant is the sheer scope of a narrative which is – despite this – told very directly. We whizz through generations, gobbling up narrators as we go, meeting the official historians of the kingdoms of Two Twoia and Blazerbirdia in quick succession as the story gallops through the centuries.
The actors play many parts, switching adeptly between characters by whacking on an pinnie or a fake moustache. Adam Venus, as the talking, strutting, magic Blazerbird, is a particular highlight. The large ensemble cast consisted of members of the Southwark Playhouse Young Company as well as professional actors, so that, understandably, the quality of the performances ranged somewhat.
That said, Southwark Playhouse's commitment to its community is commendable, and no one minds a bit of amateurish acting over Christmas, and the youth contingent is well integrated into the professional cast.
There are so many stories-within-stories in Feathers in the Snow that it is hard to keep track. Ridley is brilliant at capturing the essence of a myth or story in very few words, tapping into something familiar even while fizzing with imagination. Big real-life themes like war, loss and migration are told through a fantastical story of talking birds, sea witches and cake-munching kings. It is a play about storytelling and creation myth-making, but it is also about a magical bird, and about the rise and fall of civilisations.
This is the last production to be staged in the theatre's main house before Southwark Playhouse relocates to a temporary venue in Elephant and Castle (it will return to the arches of London Bridge in 2018) so Feathers in the Snow is a chance to catch one last show in these atmospheric vaults. In this twisting, fast-paced epic, there is plenty to get adults thinking, and the young children in the audience were completely engrossed, too.