The second of our play readings this week was And a Nightingale Sang by C.P. Taylor.
Set in the period of the Second World War, the play takes place in a working-class household in Newcastle. The central character is Helen, a young woman known to her family as “the cripple” because of her walking difficulties. She is a practical person who serves as the play’s narrator. She lives with her mum, a devout Catholic, her dad, a former coal miner and her sister Joyce, who is younger and unsure of herself. In the extended family is Helen’s granddad, who is a part-time resident in the house.
The action unfolds over six scenes, which take place at different points at the war – from Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s announcement that the country is at war to the celebrations on VE Day. The play shows the progression of two relationships; that of Joyce and Eric, who are together when the play begins, and of Helen and Norman, who meet during the war following Norman’s posting to Newcastle, where he meets Eric.
And a Nightingale Sang was very favourably reviewed by those who were at the reading; one person went as far as to call it a “great play”. It was felt that the characters had been well-drawn, especially Helen, who the audience can see developing in confidence throughout the play. Even characters who make choices the audience may not support were considered sympathetic, such as Norman, who is sensitive and intelligent, despite making a decision that many would consider to be unpopular.
It was also felt that the play uses the setting of the Second World War well and that the terrors, fears, deprivation and loss that comes with conflict were cleverly portrayed. The use of period music was also praised; Helen’s father is a keen piano player and sings many songs of the era, which ties in to the play’s title.
Although this is a period piece, the theme of war and disruption are the backdrop to a portrait of family life and the way that people relate to each other. Those who read the play expressed the view that And a Nightingale Sang deals humanely with the problems of war and life – and manages to do it with good humour.
As ever, the conversation turned to whether this was a play that we could adequately stage. The set itself, while challenging, was thought to be probably feasible. The action takes place in several places, including a kitchen, an air raid shelter and out on the street. As with A Chorus of Disapproval, it is clear that any staging of this play would need to be well thought out.
The biggest challenge of the play is likely to be in the performance. The language and the action makes it clear that the play is set in Newcastle and it would be necessary for the actors to learn and sustain an accent that would be believable throughout the play.
What do you think? Let us know if you’ve read or seen And a Nightingale Sang and want to agree or disagree with anything written here.