'Carry On meets Hilary Mantel' is such a genius promotional tag line that it's difficult to resist being drawn through the doors to this Reformation Rumble. OK, so it doesn't quite have the absurd humour of the Carry Ons, nor hit the literary heights of Mantel, but it's a nice little piece and well worth a look.
Inspired by the story of Lewes Priory and its dissolution by Thomas Cromwell under Henry VIII, local playwright John Burrows' two-hander explores the lives of two monks caught up in the political upheaval of the 16th century, when England saw its monastic way of life crumble.
Father Stephen (Burrows) and Father Adams (David Brett, ex-Flying Picket) are reminiscing about their lives in orders which have been unexpectedly eventful, and the way these events mirrored what went on in the outside world.
They squabble. Steven blames Adam for all the misfortunes that fell upon the abbey but Adam is having none of it. It was all an accident, or God's will, or, well, anything but his fault. Oh no. He certainly didn't substitute the most holy relic in the abbey, the finger of St Edmund, for a ram's penis in an attempt to hide it from Cromwell's henchman, Dr Layton. Oh no. Nor did he end up in bed with a certain Lady Alice, the abbot's brother's mistress, thus bringing down the wrath of the King on the abbey. Oh no.
To be fair, he does simply stumble into both predicaments, Father Adam being one of life's innocents. Brett plays him with a sweet vulnerability mixed with a touch of cheekiness and a lot of butter wouldn't melt, while Burrows' Father Stephen is a more world-weary sort, due perhaps to his repressed sexuality.
Using a very sparse set (two column plinths and a window), Burrows and Brett play 15 characters between them. They move seamlessly from one to another, managing to differentiate them well (Burrows' Abbot has a touch of the Frankie Howards about him while his Lady Alice, all wafting in on a breeze, is a comic delight). Both actors handle the script with dexterity, and the writing itself is crisp and clear and tells a complex, convoluted tale lucidly, constantly switching from the present to the past.
A little overlong at just under two hours, When Late the Sweet Birds Sang is a gentle hymn to friendship, unrequited love, and a lost way of life. 'We great oaks have learnt to bend like rushes in the wind,' says the Abbot, with more hope than belief but then, as we all know, along came Henry with his big chopper, Cromwell. Chop chop. No more.