Bobby & Amy tells the story of the deadly effect of Foot and Mouth Disease on a rural community. It was not just the cows who died: it was a whole way of life.
Bobby and Amy are a pair of social misfits. He is autistic, distilling the world into comfortable bite-sized packets of facts and figures because “numbers are safe”. She is a gauche youngster grieving for her lost cancer-stricken father and clinging to the comforting innocence of childhood. Easy prey to the timeless taunting cruelty of adolescent bullies, the two outcasts are brought together when they flee to the sanctuary of the Folly, local landmark of the small Cotswold town in which they live. Their friendship blossoms as they find freedom in the open fields and together witness the miracle of birth, participating in a laborious calving, a quasi-religious experience in a cowshed. Adopting Abigail the calf, like a pair of young godparents, they absorb the concept of heritage through her and her herd.
What deadly, apocalyptic trauma, then, to find one day their beloved open fields closed, prohibited, taped up by “government men” and their beloved herd a dark sickly-smelling smoking pyre leaching eyeballs and blood, fat crackling, skin shrivelling, leaving only dust and bones, skulls and ashes.
Bobby & Amy is a remarkable piece of writing and a remarkable production. Emily Jenkins evokes people, cultures, scenes, places, generations, atmospheres, characters with pithy poignancy, a sprinkling of well-chosen words summoning up a succession of vivid images. A single poetic phrase conjures a whole landscape; an acutely observed, sparely described detail creates a perfect vignette of a social gathering; the brutally colourful language of insult can strike with a jolt as hard as a bully’s fist.
The two actors (Kimberly Jarvis as Amy; Will Howard as Bobby; and both as many, many more) show astonishing versatility, each depicting a range of characters, with split-second switching from young to old, male to female, some haunting, some hilarious. I was a little sceptical of its dramatic success when I read in advance that they would play “21 different characters” but by the end of the play I felt they had actually embodied far more than that, a whole town in fact, but also that each character had been established as unique and credible and memorable. There are so many great characters - the audience particularly loved Mrs M, the crazy old woman addicted to Opal Fruits, and “balloon-head”, the local politician, but there were very many more it seems a crime not to mention.
The whole piece is like a patchwork (appropriately reminiscent of the patchwork fields of the Cotswold countryside): the story is interwoven with people popping up repeatedly, unexpectedly, memorably, surprisingly, recognisably, like old friends, and is constructed of snippets of text sewn together to make a satisfyingly unified whole.
I would like to pay tribute, too, to the technical aspects of the production. The lighting and the different subtle uses of smoke were powerful in evoking place, time, emotion, danger, sensation. The ethereal sound design was even more powerful in being reticent and restrained almost to the point of being subliminal throughout most of the production - if one strained, one could only just make out the sound of birds in the background, for instance, so you could feel the birds rather than hear them - and sound came to the fore only very occasionally to make a point, such as the minimal but heart-scorching creak of the slow rhythmic heavy swinging of a rope in the Folly.
This is an extraordinary piece of work. It is funny. It is moving. It is thought-provoking. It is great storytelling. Some of the writing is true poetry. It is an amazingly vivid animation of late 1990s rural England. The audience at North Wall tonight went on applauding for long after the actors left the stage, and deservedly so. The quality of this production far exceeds the expectations generated by its advertised synopsis, and it is easy to see why it won a Fringe First award.