Battersea's Theatre503 bills itself as "the home of fearless, irreverent, brave and provocative new plays", and Sylvia Reed's The Ones That Flutter certainly lives up to that promise.
Telling the story of the friendship between an ageing prison warden in Texas and the prisoner whose execution he has to order, the play unravels the history of a complex and abusive family relationship, setting the deaths in the family against the state-determined death of Sam Hunter (Richie Campbell).
The play opens with the warden, Roddy (Michael Feast), being visited by a representative of a property developer who wants to knock down the family home and build a modern gated community. The meeting makes Roddy think back to his younger self (beautifully played by Oliver Coopersmith) who stands up to the violent alcoholic father who broke his older brother Ray's arm.
Ray had refused to retrieve the injured doves his father shot - the 'ones that flutter'. Instead, Roddy takes on the job and in a chilling moment says to his father, "I'll be your dog". But Ray later dies in Vietnam, a war that Roddy didn't get to fight. Instead, he became prison warden where it was again his job again to "kill the doves".
The acting from the entire cast is quite simply stellar. Michael Feast leads a supremely talented group in a brilliant turn as both Roddy and his father, demonstrating how the boy became the emotionally stunted man who would develop a friendship with a death-row prisoner, but not do anything to prevent the man's death. He was, as Sam says, just doing what others expected of him.
Helen Goddard's effective set of a simple Florida farmhouse also doubles as a Texas jail cell, and has been given a claustrophobic feel with a sloping back wall. Abbey Wright's direction is as sharp and well-defined as the acting, with scenes morphing seamlessly from one to the other, from one time to another with no loss of clarity.
It's no surprise that The Ones That Flutter, which premiered stateside last year, won awards at Mississippi's New Stage Theatre and Boston Theatre Works. Sylvia Reed and the cast deserve all the plaudits they receive for this impressive and thought-provoking play.