Books, Lyrics and Music: Mike Batt
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
While commemoration activity for the First World War focuses primarily on sacrifice and loss, it’s easy to forget that, for the civilians who lived through it and the men who came home, 1918 was never the end of their story. Not only had war had changed them, but veterans returned to a Britain they barely recognised where no one understood them, and, although they didn’t know it, further conflicts were coming. Mike Batt’s new musical The Men Who March Away gives voice to this unlucky generation who fought a hideous war and then watched their sons do the same.
In 1913 Katherine Grayling is happily engaged to George Denham and in defiance of her middle-class parents leaves home to become a Music Hall performer alongside her friend Billy Brown. But George goes to war the following summer leaving Katherine and Billy to grow closer. But Katherine finds herself in trouble and when news of George’s death reaches her she makes a rash decision, but is George really gone and when war is over and their child grows up what does the future have in store for all of them?
Mike Batt wrote The Men Who March Away nearly 25 years ago and this rather belated premiere was performed as a partially acted concert, allowing the audience to visualise how this would look if it was given a full staging. Batt is clearly fascinated by the connections between people and how time affects the rationality of their decision-making, and his songs are full of quivering emotion as people swear undying love in quite tender and convincing ways.
The story itself is a rather complex one, situated primarily in two time periods; Act One from 1913- 1918 and Act Two largely in the Spanish Civil War but briefly in 1939 as well. Throughout it cuts back and forth between the combat zone and the home front where Katherine is performing in vaudeville, showing the effects of war on all civilian and fighters, as well as occasionally looking at things from the enemy perspective. This is more successful in Act One where there is a tighter focus on the three central characters but on the whole, Batt just about gets away with it by staging some nice set pieces in Act Two without any of the principals.
And the music is a delight, from the pleading tones of the title song sung by Katherine (Alice Frankham) at the start to The Love That Never Went Away which has a sentimental but emotive quality reprised frequently in Act Two, Batt creates a deep connection between the characters in song that gives the show its heart. Equally excellent are the songs for the soldiers, particularly in Act One, which really capture the conflicting feelings many serviceman had about fighting. In Jolly Good Fun / Thank God the men are highly optimistic, seeing war as a game, but cleverly it morphs into a more ironic tune as they face bombardment and death with vivid sound effects designed by Chris Smith and projection by Oliver Savidge Maloney. Similarly, The Somme has an almost painful refrain about no more wars accompanied by heavy drum and cymbal which add both drama and poignancy.
The book is the weakest element of the show and is largely unable to replicate the same feeling as Batt achieves with the songs. Too often words sound hollow, clichéd and like recited fact rather than realistic dialogue, and it lacks subtly particularly in crass moments such as Katherine’s suggestion that Billy had a worse war than George who was mown down on the first morning of the Somme and lay in a shell hole for hours. Length is also a problem with the entire show including an indulgent 30-minute interval coming in at nearly three hours, there are areas that could be reduced or cut entirely to move things along quicker, especially with 19 scenes and songs taking 90 minutes in Act One.
The character of Billy also lacks any real purpose, except to act as a foil for the Katherine-George romance, and while this wasn’t a full performance, Oliver Bower’s Billy played up the comedy but failed to create any real chemistry with Frankham’s Katherine making their alliance inexplicable. Alex Southern’s George was a little over eager with the generic toff-officer accent but sang beautifully, while Frankham was superbly emotive throughout.
The Men Who Marched Away has a lot of potential and this first performance accompanied by the Docklands Sinfonia Players was extremely engaging, particularly in the charming surroundings of St Anne’s, Limehouse. With a bit of work on the book and a tad more narrative direction in the Second Act, it could become a very interesting full show. Batt may have kept this under wraps for more than two decades but The Men Who March Away makes you wonder what else he’s got tucked away.
Runs until 18 March 2017 | Image: Contributed