Somewhere a Gunner Fires – King’s Head Theatre, London

Writer and director: Tom Stuchfield
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

Debuting in the centenary of the end of World War I, Tom Stuchfield’s play Somewhere a Gunner Fires, set in that conflict, has gestated for over ten years, its characters developing as the play was worked and reworked.

It certainly shows. The play’s two central characters – Spencer, an English private (played by Stuchfield, and based on his own great-grandfather) and Volker (Chris Born), an Austrian soldier who promises his wife that he will not take a life even as he serves on the front – certainly feel, as do several of the other performances, as if Stuchfield has pored over every inch of their backstory for an inordinate amount of time.

Basing his play on research of real individuals, Stuchfield and his cast also paint other vivid portraits, such as Guy Clark’s shell-shocked Dixon, a man almost wholly unsuited for battle and whose love of flora and fauna is seen as a deficiency amongst his superiors.

Julia Kass’s Mathilde, Spencer’s French wife who is stuck at her sister-in-law’s London home, is a delightful creation: spiky, sarcastic, and used effectively to inject moments of humour.

With action ranging from the front to London and to Volker’s village home, where his wife Isabella (Olivia Hanrahan-Barnes) has her own battles to contend with, Stuchfield – who also directs this, his professional debut – chooses to stage proceedings in the most static way possible. All six actors stand, side by side, Katy Gerard’s lighting indicating the central character of each scene. From the darkness, cast mates act as other unseen characters, or narrate the action.

While it makes for a financially astute play for a fringe theatre, it becomes a mental slog for audience and, one imagines, cast alike. The static nature requires a reliance on Stuchfield’s wordy script that seems to result in an over-reliance of narration of motive and intent, factors which more effectively would come across from areas of performance and physicality denied these actors.

Its also means that some of the characters’ most interesting and moving relationships are developed by actors playing into darkness. Most notably, the mutual antipathy the pacifist Volker shares with a gung-ho gunner (Hanrahan-Barnes) is all the harder to appreciate in this directorial form, even as it deepens into friendship.

The overwritten narration and static presentation put one in mind of a partly dramatised novel reading more than a stage play. Indeed, one could easily imagine Suchfield’s work succeeding in book or radio form, based on what is presented here. But that is not to denigrate the work that Suchfield and his company, Cavalry Theatre, have achieved here. Instead, it shows that, ten years on from its first germination, Somehwre a Gunner Fires has room to grow and bloom further.

Runs until February 24 2018 | Image: Contributed

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Static, but moving

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