Looking at an empty, upturned cathedral setting, with the scent of incense wafting around the room and quiet choral music playing in the background, I was unsure what to expect from Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang. Solemnly, two men clad in robes entered the stage and began relating a brief history of the religious upheaval of Henry VIII, but we were soon to discover that this was not to be the beginning of a boring history lesson.
For the brothers, Adam and Steve a.k.a. David Brett and John Burrows, are in fact not your typical straight laced monks but between them have broken a vow of celibacy, harboured homosexual tendencies and been involved in a scheme to hide holy relics. Although sexual innuendo and ‘Carry On’ style scenes litter the script, this is not to say that there are not some more serious undertones acknowledging the difficulties of the 16th century for those in the church. Yet perhaps what is most interesting is the way in which this is conveyed: the piece is a two man extravaganza, in which the two actors ingeniously play a multitude of different characters all by themselves. While Adam and Steve act as narrators to a series of tales pitched around the dissolution of the church, Brett and Burrows switch effortlessly between different characterisations to enact the stories being narrated. By altering their gait, speech, mannerism and tone of voice, the two expertly embody each new character, whether it be a disgruntled member of Cromwell’s set, an abbot in peril, a deviant mistress or a randy husband. The two work together magnificently and although the character switching is complicated, they succeed in making it extremely understandable, something lesser actors would have failed miserably at.
While this was certainly impressive, the 90 minute length of the show did mean that the constant swapping grew tiresome at points and storylines that needn’t have been extended were dragged out well past their sell by date. Had this been a slightly shorter piece, no doubt the impact would have still been made but in a more pithy, engaging manner that would stopped any yawns from the late night crowd. Inventive scripting featuring talented performers with perhaps a bit too much time on their hands.