Writer: Richard D. Cushing
Director: Eric Loren
Designer: Ed Ullyart
Composer: David Barton
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
Horseshoes for Hand Grenades is a new play about the First World War by Richard D. Cushing, an American writer long domiciled in Britain. It grew from a short story of his that, as he says, “didn’t want to end”. Neither does the play – and that is the problem with a stimulating play given an excellent production: it has too much disparate material and, to contain it all, too often resorts to cliché.
The title tells us that one of the themes will be swords into ploughshares in reverse, the conversion of rural crafts to war production. The old smithy ceases to operate, the blacksmith goes to work in the local lord’s munitions factory and his artistic son designs weapons of war – an interesting theme, but one not really developed. Cushing explains that one of his motivations for the play was all those war memorials in tiny villages with countless names, and a challenging subject is ownership of the dead. Here the lord’s desire for a private obelisk for his dead son comes in conflict with the democratic village war memorial committee.
Cushing explores both the tension of waiting in the depopulated village and the effects on young men of exposure to the horrors of the trenches, though the latter gets fairly sketchy, briefly explosive treatment. At the heart of it all is a love story, beautifully handled, and a delicately moving love scene brings the play to a perfect conclusion, except that there is ten minutes to go and loose ends in the other plots to tie. Too much of the play is monologue, though many of the more poetic sections are appealing and sometimes powerful.
East Riding Theatre consistently performs miracles of illusion on its tiny, wing-less stage – and Horseshoes for Hand Grenades is highly ambitious and totally effective in this regard. Before the start we can see the authentic, old-fashioned smithy of Isaac Ward, at the start projections of pre-1914 life, many in the Beverley area, appear on the front canopy which then rises as Mr. Ward completes work on a horseshoe.
Mark Rathbone is the archetypal blacksmith in Act 1 and a sturdy narrator throughout. The contrast with his son, Andrew, sketching in the churchyard, is total, but doesn’t lead to conflict. Andrew is a dreamer, though with a practical bent, and he is 17 so for the first year of war he is at home, designing munitions.
The greatest strength of Eric Loren’s production is the outstanding performances he gets from his younger actors. Robbie Fletcher-Hill (Andrew) and Evie Guttridge (his girl-friend Emily) could hardly be better, the freshness, brightness and intelligence of their Act 1 performances giving way to agony in his case, forthright social conscience in hers and undying love in both. In the small part of Emily’s devil-may-care brother Daniel Rainford is also excellent.
Which leaves the part of Lord Stenton – and a problem The local lord is presented as a collection of clichés, from the horse-obsessed patriot to the furious devotee of rank and privilege. Malcolm Tomlinson clips his sentences like the best of them, but the part really works only when Cushing’s words allow the caricature to become comic.
With David Barton’s atmospheric music and Ed Ullyart’s realistic-cum-impressionistic set, East Riding Theatre does Horseshoes for Hand Grenades proud. What of the play itself? It should have a life in the theatre, but Richard D. Cushing probably needs to tighten things before the next production.
Runs until October 19, 2019 | Image: Contributed