Reviewer: Stephen Bates
Two years into centenary commemorations, are we yet entitled to be feeling Great War fatigue? Certainly, we must never be allowed to forget the suffering and sacrifices of our ancestors, but, after countless books, films, dramas, musicals and even a television sitcom, there are few new ways left to remind us. Therein lies the main problem with Neil McPherson’s play with music – it finds little that is new.
The War left a legacy of great poetry. Charles “Charlie” Hamilton Sorley is lesser known than Wilfred Owen or Rupert Brooke, but McPherson makes his work the centrepiece of this play. He was born in Aberdeen in 1895 to an upper middle-class family and the poems that we hear tell us of his pre-War Summer in Germany, going through to him becoming an officer in the British army and his horrific experiences on the battlefield, leading finally up to his death in action in October 1915.
With wry observations running through his writing, Charlie looks at British and German society and life in the trenches from the perspective of an outsider. Alexander Knox plays him with spirit and recites the poems impeccably. Songs, mostly traditional, provide welcome interludes and they are sung beautifully by young tenor Hugh Benson, accompanied on piano by Elizabeth Rossiter.
There are gems in the verse and the music, but the creaking structure that McPherson builds to house them dims their shine. The play begins with Charlie’s parents, William (Tom Marshall) and Janet (Jenny Lee) receiving the feared telegram and then we see them going through their son’s poetry and letters, agonising over whether or not they should allow them to be published. These linking scenes are very dreary indeed.
The poetry, laden with sarcasm and ironic wit, shapes Knox’s characterisation. Charlie comes across as aloof and arrogant, lacking warmth, and empathising with him presents a problem. Nonetheless, Knox’s animated and energetic performance at least commands attention. Phil Lindley’s set of the interior of William and Janet’s home makes it difficult to escape the feeling we are listening to a drawing room recital, but director Max Kay makes commendable efforts to inject drama into the production, particularly with simulated action sequences.
The overriding tone is similar to that of a Requiem Mass, solemn and respectful, but dull. After the performance, the lingering question is how it could be possible to have been guided through such senseless carnage and still remain so little moved.
Runs until 9 July 2016 | Image: Scott Rylander