Interview with Bea Roberts, writer of And Then Come The Nightjars

Writer Bea Robert is interviewed about And Then Come The Nightjars, her award-winning play that launches its new national tour at Live Theatre in September.

The script for And Then Come The Nightjars was selected from 1500 scripts as winner of the Theatre503 Playwriting Award and the play received fourteen ★★★★ and ★★★★★ reviews and six Off West End nominations including Best New Play for its 2015 tour. In the play, set in South Devon, 2001, cattle farmer Michael and vet Jeff have a begrudging respect and blossoming friendship until Foot and Mouth starts to spread across the British countryside. And Then Come The Nightjars is tender and comic portrait of friendship and a tribute to rural England.

How did you feel when you heard that And Then Come The Nightjars was being taken on tour?
I was so thrilled to hear the play was touring! It’s a beautiful production made with so much care from everyone involved that it deserves a larger audience than we could reach before. It was always my hope that this play would be performed in south Devon where I grew up and taken into other areas affected by the FMD crisis so I couldn’t be happier that we’ll get to share this production across the country. At the risk of playing favourites, it means the world to me that the show will be playing at the Theatre Royal Plymouth; growing up just outside of Plymouth that was the first place I ever saw professional theatre and it also means my nan and granddad will get to see the show. They’ve read every review since September 2015 and they’re clamouring to see it!

How has winning the Theatre503 Playwriting Award with And Then Come The Nightjars affected your career since?
Winning the award really launched my career beyond the west country; the award gave me my first big London production, first national reviews and Nightjars is the first play I’ve had published. Theatre503 also nominated me and the show for the prestigious Susan Smith Blackburn Prize and I was one of ten international finalists for that in February 2016. I’m now working on a couple of new shows and having a crack at TV but the biggest thing for me is that for the first time in my career I’ve been able to give up my many day jobs and just be a writer rather than be a writer/barmaid, writer/planetarium worker, writer/donut seller…

Set in Devon during the 2001 Foot and Mouth epidemic, And Then Come The Nightjars will likely reverberate with the audiences of the rural venues that the tour is heading to – how do you think they will respond to the play?
We’ve had amazing responses from audience members touched by that time that have come to see the show, particularly when we played in Bristol and many people had either grown up in farming communities or travelled in from Cornwall, Devon, Wales, Wiltshire or Shropshire just to see the play. After the shows there were often tears but, more than that, people wanted so much to talk about a time that has been largely been forgotten from our wider cultural and national consciousness. I started writing Nightjars during the ten year anniversary of FMD in 2011 because I felt attention needed to be paid to this devastating period in our countryside’s history. I hope people whose lives were affected by FMD feel that their stories are being acknowledged and commemorated in some way even if their exact experience differs from our characters. It’s also a play about recovery and resilience and there’s some hope in that even if things don’t turn out as you might have wanted.

Coming from Devon yourself what are your memories of the Foot and Mouth crisis – did these play a big part in writing And Then Come The Nightjars?
I was a teenager during Foot and Mouth so my main memories are twofold; firstly, that social events, gigs, fairs, friend’s parties, everything seemed to just close and shut down as if the whole county was grounded and secondly there was a horrible, creeping sense that we were being invaded somehow. I remember the disinfectant sodden straw across the roads, yellow tape across gates and footpaths and anxiety everywhere -­ no-­one seemed to know what was happening or where it would all end. These memories definitely helped to shape my writing but I really grew to understand a lot more about the crisis and its affects as an adult looking back and undertaking research.

The Guardian described And Then Come The Nightjars as ‘a savagely funny and sad play’ -­ how important is the humour to an otherwise sombre subject matter?
Humour is hugely important to me; I can’t imagine writing anything that was entirely serious! As for a lot of people, humour is a way my characters cope with life, cope with each other and cope with adversity. If you can’t have a laugh, it’s going to be bloody boring life eh?

Listen to a post show talk with writer Bea Roberts talking about And Then Come The Nightjars recorded in September 2015 at Theatre503

And Then Come the Nightjars is at Live Theatre, Newcastle from Wednesday 14 to Saturday 17 September 2016, with performances at 7.30pm each evening and matinee performances at 2pm on Thursday and Saturday. A free Meet the Cast event takes place after the performance on Thursday 15 September in which the cast and creative team discuss the making of the play. Free but booking essential.

Tickets for And Then Come the Nightjars cost £22-£10 full price, £16-£12 over 60s concessions and £15-£6 for other concessions. For more information or to book tickets visit www.live.org.uk or contact Live Theatre’s box office on (0191) 232 1232.