Caro Meets Musicals & Opera Interview

Abigail Matthews: The White Feather

By | Published on Wednesday 16 September 2015

I’m always interested in hearing about new creations (though, you know, revivals have their charm too), and when I heard about a new musical called ‘The White Feather’, my interest was certainly piqued: it deals with sombre subject matter, the story of a young woman’s fight to gain justice for her brother after he was condemned for cowardice during World War I.


I decided to find out more about the production, so sent some questions over to the show’s lead actor, Abigail Matthews.

CM: Without giving away too much, can you tell us what ‘The White Feather’ is all about? How does the narrative begin?
AM: ‘The White Feather’ follows the journey of Georgina Briggs and her fight to gain a posthumous pardon for her younger brother, who was executed for cowardice. The piece investigates several themes; PTSD and mental health, as well as cultural change, attitudes towards women and women’s rights, and homosexuality at a time when an open relationship was not accepted and certainly was impossible to reveal within the military. It touches on the politics of the time, and ultimately how such an extraordinary situation plunges a rural village into a pressure cooker of change and upheaval (as indeed was the case across Europe during and after The Great War). The narrative begins towards the end of the tale chronologically, then takes a step back to address how the characters have reached this point.

CM: Does the show aim to highlight particular issues, or have an agenda (political or otherwise)?
AM: My first impression of the text was that it was incredibly honest and unassuming. It’s ultimately about ordinary people thrown into an extraordinary situation and follows their choices and reactions to this. Every viewpoint is given light and is encapsulated within an ordinary, very real character. Whatever the opinion is that drives the character, it doesn’t consume them, it’s only part of who they are. That can make the theme discussed even harder to deliberate in one’s mind, because it’s not black and white. I don’t believe the show has an agenda, but certainly political and cultural issues of the time are discussed. The audience will be encouraged to think on these themes, and perhaps look at the uglier side of the choices characters make under these circumstances.

CM: Tell us about your role in it. Who do you play?
AM: I play Georgina Briggs, older sister of Harry Briggs, who is executed. She is a very traditional young woman who is forced to make radical changes to her outlook on the world around her. She is very much connected to her environment in the countryside, and has as many faults as attributes – as do we all!

CM: What attracted you to the play, and the role?
AM: The sincerity of the piece. It began its life as a fairly academic and very accurate account of these people and times. As it’s evolved, the specificity of the content can now be played spontaneously through a character, and there is less need to narrate so much information to the audience. This is very exciting, and a huge testament to creator Ross Clark, and all who’ve invested in the piece. The original concept was so honest, that it drew me in, and the music fitted perfectly with what the text was saying. It is a very exciting opportunity to develop something that has such a solid core and clear narrative.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the rest of the cast?
AM: It’s a small company for a musical piece and it’s a wonderful team to be part of. Everyone is incredibly committed and creative, providing the necessary energy in the rehearsal room to continue development of the piece, whilst also having a clear image of their character and how wonderfully diverse this community is! There is a great deal of varied experience within the company, and we’re learning a lot from each other.

CM: This is a brand new musical, isn’t it? Who are the creative team behind it?
AM: The original concept was created beautifully by Ross Clark and Martin Coslett and the material was workshopped by a great company of actors in its first stages. It’s now being developed with more hands on deck. Andrew Keates is working on the libretto, and Matthew Strachan and Dustin Conrad are developing the music and adding extra musical elements where necessary. The work they’re doing to move this piece into its next phase is fantastic (with Dustin often jumping through keys and creating transition pieces and harmonies on the hoof with impressive speed!) Matthew Strachan’s compositions are beautiful and blend seamlessly with Ross and Martin’s material, really complementing the text.

CM: I hear that as well as being skilled at acting and singing, you are also a puppeteer – how did you get into that, and how did you develop your skills?
AM: I do puppeteer and I absolutely love it. Initially, I was tutored by Jane Leaney, one of the best puppeteers in the industry, totally by chance. An opportunity to become an alternate ‘Aslan’ puppeteer in ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ came up whilst I was on the show, and I was given intense tuition over a short period of time before taking on the responsibility, performing up to 3 times a week as necessary. I then went on to do ‘War Horse’ and continued to develop my skills there, working with an incredible team to bring ‘Baby Joey’ to life. Since then, I’ve worked with a massive squid puppet called Barbra in a 10 person team!! And also with smaller, more delicate puppets being developed for children’s theatre. It’s an incredibly rewarding and humbling area of performance and I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to learn the skill.

CM: What’s next for you? Anything new on the horizon…?
AM: The horizon is (as has often been the case over the last 6 years!) the great unknown! Both daunting and exciting! I hope to have more opportunities to work with new writing in the future as it’s so rewarding.

‘The White Feather’ is on at Union Theatre until 17 October. See the venue website here for tickets and information. 


Photo: Scott Rylander

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