by Steve Waters and Tangled Feet
Reviewed by Andrew Burton
Walking boots are not the first thing I usually reach for when I’m going to see a piece of theatre but Murmurations is no ordinary piece of theatre. I saw it on the afternoon of Saturday 25 September 2021 at Strumpshaw Fen, an unassuming jewel of a nature reserve run by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, nestling in the Yare Valley, a few miles to the east of Norwich.
Despite dire weather forecasts earlier in the week, by the time I arrived the sun was out, lending a coppery early autumn glow to the surroundings. And Strumpshaw was thrumming with life; from the bearded tits that provided impromptu pre-show entertainment near the entrance, to the lucious blackberries dangling in the hedgerows.
Murmurations, by Steve Waters and Tangled Feet, is a unique site-specific production created in response to two different nature reserves in the East of England; as well as Strumpshaw, the show also has roots in Cambridgeshire’s Wicken Fen, where the show had been performed the previous week. Part of a project jointly funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the University of East Anglia, it is the latest piece of environmental theatre work by Waters who – since his seminal diptych of plays The Contingency Plan at London’s Bush Theatre in 2009 – has remained at the forefront of artistic practice and reflection on climate change.
Around twenty audience members and I were given headphones and invited to follow our guide Chloë (played with CBeebies chutzpah and genuine warmth by Chanice Hird) as we set off on our guided tour of the reserve. Along the way, our walk was interrupted by a series of individuals and couples whose exchanges (and sometimes even inner thoughts) we could hear. Grieving daughter Shola (brought to life convincingly by Emily Eversden) was deliberating where to scatter her mothers’ ashes; joggers Marco (Mario Christofides) and Kieran (Carl Parkin) interrupted their testosterone-fuelled run to argue about a contentious housing development which would affect the Fen; birding couple Kel and Pete (Emily Eversden and Mario Christofides quickly doubling!) bickered about rare sightings; terminally ill Mags (played with poise and restrained passion by Fiona Watson) became an environmental activist; and even tour guide Chloë revealed how the reserve had brought solace at a difficult time in her life. As we ambled deeper into the play’s thematic thickets, it became clear how intricately connected all these strands were. The terminally ill environmental activist, Mags, turned out to be Shola’s late mother; Kieran turned out to be the son of a farmer and came to realise the importance of keeping the farming tradition going for another generation after his father’s death, despite the difficulties; Kel and Pete remembered how their original shared love of bird watching had brought them together and, on their anniversary, learned to bond rather than bicker. Within this richly textured story, the characters revealed their deep and intricate connection with the Fen. One of the most striking features of Waters’ writing is its ability to map the local distinctiveness of an area onto a wider ecology of human emotion.
This remarkable promenade headphone theatre piece was also a feast for the senses. It was impossible not to be affected by the magic of the natural surroundings as bees buzzed, butterflies fluttered by, the heavy damask perfume of hidden honeysuckle pervaded the air and now and again the low autumn sun burnished reddening haws and rose hips. What made it even more engaging was the way sights and sounds from outside the frame of the drama were incorporated into the performance: a baby being carried by one of the audience members quickly became an unequivocal star of the show after tour guide Chloë engaged in ‘baby talk’ and the baby gleefully gurgled back. At one point, one of the highland cattle stared at performers and audience, threatening to upstage the action and putting the old acting adage about never working with children or animals in a whole new light. The Fen itself became a character in the play, linked to the unfolding human drama by means of a beguiling and lyrical song spell seamlessly woven into the narrative, a device also used to wonderful choric effect in Waters’ BBC Radio 4 series Song of the Reed.
Guy Connelly’s nuanced sound design was beautifully complemented by Polly Wright’s hauntingly original music which added resonance and depth to the human dramas being played out before us. Deft direction by Nathan Curry was matched by astute design by Blythe Brett. While some of the costumes – for example, those worn by the birder couple – were highly detailed and felt authentic, others felt less convincing; I don’t believe that any self-respecting East Anglian farmer would wear Dunlop wellies such as you might buy from Millets (see Justin Partyka’s illuminating photo study The East Anglians in Granta’s The New Nature Writing for the real thing).
Minor costume quibbles aside, Murmurations is a richly textured, warm hearted, timely and urgent piece of theatre that highlights our deep interdependence with the natural world and encourages us all – young and old – to adopt ecology’s longstanding mantra to think globally but act locally.