The sensitivity of White Feather

Brighton-based ‘Take the Space’ chose Eastbourne to stage the premiere of a new play written and directed by Siobhán Nicholas.

This latest explores the themes of pugilism and pacifism - two subjects which would not, on the face of it, be ones on which to base a play with just two characters. But, as Siobhán said: “I wanted to partner the bravest of ideals with the bravest of sports.”

Here the pugilist and pacifist is Jimmy (Chris Barnes) who in 1967, is 71 years old and running a boxing club in London’s East End. Jimmy’s prodigy, whom he is training, is Jo (Polly Jordan), a 16 year old girl determined to succeed in her chosen sport. Despite difficulties at that time for women becoming boxers, Jo is encouraged and embarks on a gruelling training regime. The stage is dominated by a large punch-bag on which Jimmy teaches her ducking and weaving, straight lefts, right arm jabs and a thumping uppercut. But it soon emerges that the unlikely duo have many similarities.

Woven into this scenario is the story of Jimmy’s life. A soldier in WW1, wounded and later, as a conscientious objector and ambulance driver, imprisoned for his pacifism. These experiences, and being branded a coward, a white feather was the token given by girls to young men who, for whatever reason, refused to fight, have left Jimmy permanently scarred. This trauma, and his gymnasium in World War II being used to shelter Jewish ‘kindertransport’ children fleeing Nazi Germany, adds another dimension to his life which has been dominated by the expression “Keep Your Anger In The Ring”. Alongside this is Jo’s own anger. At her drunken mother and boyfriend who, when he attempts to abuse her, she seriously beats up using punches she has learned from Jimmy.

Jo’s discovery of Jimmy’s boxing champion’s belt, Army medal and love letters, in a suitcase which he has given her to pack her belongings before arranging escape to a new life in America, is a poignant highlight. The story, which encapsulates several inter-related historical topics, could be the subject of a full length novel. Instead, this is a sensitively-crafted play providing unique and thought-provoking theatre. By Roger Paine.