Writer: Hugh Salmon
Director: Ellie Jones
It’s 1910 – the students at prestigious Balliol College in the heart of Oxford are on the brink of a war that’s ready to tear them apart. But initially it’s not international armies or outside enemies that are at the crux of the storyline, it’s the bitter feud between fellow students that is causing the collapse of the Balliol boys club; the rift between the haves and the have nots, highlighting the social divide and creating havoc on campus. Will social hierarchy prevail over those who have dedicated their lives to equality? Or will a common enemy unite both sides and bring peace to all?
Writer Hugh Salmon has done a fantastic job of bringing this moving true story to life, further cementing these brave men into the history books. While historical plays can sometimes fall into the trap of being rigid, Salmon manages to humanise the moments that have passed and create a truly engaging narrative. Split into two halves, this play is almost like two separate stories, ultimately merging but independently intriguing, nonetheless.
The first act focuses on the comedic feud between upper class Eton boy Billy Grenfell (Nikolas Salmon) and socialist Keith Rae (Joe Gill). Their vastly different upbringings conclude them to have conflicting ideas about everything, their personalities clashing every time they interact. The separation between the different social classes is a really interesting focus, with the talented actors making it believable and highly entertaining to watch.
The second act is more serious, hard-hitting and emotional. With the war upon them, the feud between the boys is meagre in comparison to the common enemy they’re fighting. The petty squabbles and snobbery are cast aside for them to come together and unite as one. The dichotomy of the two acts is much like the gulf between Billy and Joe themselves and is a great way to show contrast as a theme once again within the storyline.
Director Ellie Jones, weaves together this intricate script with ease, each scene flowing into the next and hooking the audience even deeper into the tale. The camaraderie of the characters is a joy to watch, made more compelling with the clear chemistry between the actors, who represent their counterparts gallantly.
Ellen Cairns’s set design, with lavishly architectural stone structures donning the stage, immediately imparts the Oxford University scene. The space is used impeccably well and is the perfect partnership to Alexandra Stafford’s light design, which keeps the tension throughout.
Concluding this poignant story with poppy petals cascading from the ceiling as the actors reinstate the truth behind this touching story, it’s hard not to feel an overwhelming wave of emotion. Everyone involved with this piece are representing history with honour.
Runs until 31 October 2021