Writer: Phil Porter
Director: Erica Whyman
Reviewer: James Garrington
December 1914. The Great War has been under way for four months, and has become bogged down in a stalemate in France and Belgium where men have burrowed into the ground, never daring to raise their heads above the parapet for fear of a sniper’s bullet or an incoming shell. Then something strange happens. Calm descends. Along the line men start to climb out of the trenches, enemies meet, an uneasy truce develops. Someone produces a football and a game starts. Gifts are exchanged. For a while it seems as though normality has resumed, but then it is over; people return to the trenches, and the slaughter begins again.
This is not a new story. In fact, the story of the truce has become quite well known, even more so this Christmas where it has been used as the basis for a television advert. What writer Phil Porter has done here, though is add a local touch to the tale. This version of the story is loosely based on the experiences of the Warwickshire Regiment, as they face a Saxon regiment in Belgium. One of the members of the Warwicks is one Bruce Bairnsfather, a man who has previously served before leaving the army to “pursue other interests” – he wanted to be an artist. And by all accounts, he was a very talented artist (though we never get to see any of the drawings done on stage), for Bairnsfather was the creator of “Old Bill” the archetypal old soldier who featured in many cartoons of the period. Sitting alongside things like The Wipers Times, these publications added a touch of dark humour to the desperate situation that existed in the trenches, and made Bairnsfather quite well-known in his time, as his work was published after the war and sold over a million copies, as well as appearing on merchandise, and even on the silver screen.
Writer Phil Porter and director Erica Whyman face a great challenge here. Not only is this a story that many people are familiar with, but over the last twelve months or so the country has been bombarded with sounds, images and facts about the war, both on our television screens and in our theatres. How is this piece to be pitched so as to make an impact among all of the competing material? In the show programme Whyman acknowledges the inspiration given to her by her experience directing Oh What a Lovely War in 2010, and the influence of that piece is very clear to see, not only in the way the play has been directed but also in Porter’s script which contains a good many references to the earlier classic. Yet it doesn’t have the high visual and emotional impact of Oh What a Lovely War. Neither is it a Journey’s End, though we get some reflections of that piece in the ‘stiff upper lip’ attitude that appears from time to time, albeit given a far lighter approach. Certainly adding the local references and the famous cartoonist give a different and interesting take on the subject, but overall the production feels, by comparison, a little superficial and often predictable.
The main interest lies, of course, with the truce itself and there are some touching moments introduced in the relationships between the enemies, particularly the side conversations around the goalposts set up for the inevitable game of football. There is also a great deal of humour in the way the piece is presented, and comedy in the script. Where it is lacking is in building any real emotional connection between the audience and any of the characters, with no real back stories or personal relationships being explored. As a result, when the inevitable happens and men start to be killed it doesn’t have the same impact as it might have done. What we do have is an almost superfluous subplot about personal disagreements and dislike between a nurse and matron at a clearing hospital, which they agree to put behind them in a reflection of the events on the front line.
The cast of this ensemble piece work very hard, and are often very busy, with some of them spending a lot of time on stage. Being the ensemble piece that it is, it would be wrong to single out many of the actors for special mention. Bruce Bairnsfather (Joseph Kloska) provides a voice of reason throughout, as a man equally at home talking to a Colonel as a Private, and finding himself in the centre of everything that is going on. Alongside him is Gerard Horan as Bairnsfather’s creation Old Bill, in a good portrayal of the typical experienced old soldier. Frances McNamee (Phoebe) shows a good deal of passion and determination to do what she believes is best for the patients in her care, while Leah Whitaker (Matron) is suitably cold and seemingly uncaring in sticking to the rules. Finally, Nick Haverson (Leutnant Kohler) delivers a completely different approach to the bumbling characters he plays in the Love’s Labour’s plays, as the German who points out that underneath we are actually all the same after all.
An effective set designed by Tom Piper allows the action to flow easily, comprising mostly boxes and similar items moved by the cast, augmented by some very atmospheric lighting by Charles Balfour.
Overall this is a piece that provides an interesting and entertaining approach to a crucial moment in our history, where arguably the war might have ended. While it may lack some of the emotional impact of other similar pieces, the lighter approach that it has makes it very accessible for younger members of the audience, who may be studying this period at school. It is after all a Christmas production, and as Whyman points out, one of the aims is to create a “festive evening”. In that regard, it succeeds well, and provides an entertaining and educational Christmas show.
Photo: Topher McGrillis | Runs until 31st January 2015