Bobby & Amy review – gripping drama about foot-and-mouth disease

The new BBC Two documentary Blair and Brown: The New Labour Revolution features the prime minister’s first re-election on 7 June 2001. An historical oddity is that Blair was never meant to win then. Polling had been set for 3 May, but was unusually postponed due to much of the countryside being ringed by quarantine tape under skies foully clouded by the slaughter of 6m cows and sheep to halt foot-and-mouth disease.

This time of livestock pyres and troughs of disinfectant in ditches is viscerally invoked in Bobby & Amy, which won writer-director Emily Jenkins a 2019 Fringe First award at the last full Edinburgh festival before theatre itself was sealed off for hygiene reasons.

In the Cotswolds, two teenagers, ostracised at school for what peers see as foot-in-mouth manners, start an awkward friendship. When they help at a farm, and adopt a favourite cow, the outcome is as unstoppable as in Sophocles.

Jenkins’ chosen genre is “poor theatre”, as envisioned by the Polish director Jerzy Grotowski: no sets or props, all power resting on actors’ bodies and voices. This economy pays huge dividends with performers of the effortless flexibility of Will Howard and Kimberley Jarvis. Affecting in the title roles, they share 19 other parts, including mothers, fathers, farmers, pharmacists, council and Defra officials. Howard suddenly embodies both a haughty local equestrian and her horse; Jarvis differentiates teenagers with a simple hair-flick or lip-twitch. In two scenes, the pair play all the people at a crowded town meeting.

The revival deliberately coincides with the 20th anniversary of the agriculture epizootic (the veterinary term for widespread animal disease, never going viral as “pandemic” has). Jenkins keeps the piece sealed in time, allowing no retrospective questions such as whether the huge-scale animal slaughter was proportionate and unavoidable. Bobby & Amy, though, claims clear extra resonances from a human virus. The strongest cross-echo is the economic and psychological devastation that long outlast emergency governmental intervention. A piece of poor theatre delivers riches.

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