Tag Archives: WW1

Lesere – Jermyn Street Theatre

1921: John and Jane Lesere have put the war behind them and settled into a gentle-paced life of tending a vineyard in France. Their quiet existence is shattered by the arrival of George, an injured stranger who preys on their good nature and seems unnervingly curious about their respective pasts. With a little bit of cold-reading and the theft of a notebook, he skilfully extracts all the ghosts they thought they had laid to rest and forces them into an evening of confessions about their wartime experiences. As innumerable skeletons come tumbling out of cupboards, the masquerade of their idyllic marriage slips.

Although billed as being “Hitchcockian”, its formula is more reminiscent of An Inspector Calls by J.B. Priestley, and while this play certainly matches it for dramatic bombshells, it somehow falls short overall. In the intimacy of the Jermyn Street Theatre (converted into the round for this play), a small room with white painted floorboards is surrounded by an ominous earthy wilderness – complete with gloomy lighting and the sound of howling wind, it requires a leviathan effort to cross this no-man’s-land to the safe haven of the drawing room. What may only be a few small steps might as well be a journey of miles. The shuddering physicality of the actors during these interludes is harrowing to watch, but this device is overused and quickly starts to feel like a bit of a gimmick (a few choice moments would’ve had far greater impact).

My ticket was courtesy of Bargain Theatre. To read the review in full, please click here.

Why the fascination with WW1?

“The dead. The body count. We don’t like to admit the war was even partly our fault ’cause so many of our people died. And all the mourning’s veiled the truth. It’s not “lest we forget,” it’s “lest we remember.” That’s what all this is about — the memorials, the Cenotaph, the two minutes’ silence. Because there is no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it.”

This quote from The History Boys by Alan Bennett has been playing on my mind for the last couple of days.  What is it about the First World War that we are all so obsessed with?  Why that war in particular and not any other?  There’s nothing quite like a centenary to focus the mind and cause an outpouring on the artistic front, to indulge the nationwide WW1 fever.  (This probably all sounds terribly cynical – it isn’t).

I too have been swept along in this inexplicable need for commemoration.  I went to see the poppies at the Tower of London and was stunned at the sheer scale of it. Even looking at it, 888,246 is still a difficult number to get your head around.  Back in January we were putting together a season of plays for my theatre, with the intention of including one WW1-related play every year for 4 years.  We had one we liked, but then suddenly Journey’s End by R. C. Sherriff came available for amateur rights (thank you people of Samuel French London!) a powerful, moving drama full of well-drawn characters.  It opened our season in September – at the end, some people were reportedly coming out of the auditorium in tears.  It broke my heart as I took show photos, then it broke me again as I painstakingly picked through pictures trying to choose a few for front of house and the website.  But it seems we’re not the only theatre with this idea: I’ve seen posters for everything from The Accrington Pals to My Boy Jack to Birdsong.  War Horse has been running in London almost constantly since 2007.  If audience numbers are anything to go by, we’re not bored of war yet – far from it.

Our recent production of R. C. Sherriff’s ‘Journey’s End’

So are theatres fuelling this desire for stories of war and tragic loss, or simply responding to a demand for it?  Are theatre, TV and film responsible for this warped image we have that WW1 was 4 years of relentless day-and-night bombardment, whilst the truth is that there were a lot of gaps in between, that frequent rotations meant that soldiers spent very little time at the front line?  It’s easy to think that the death toll accounts for a much higher percentage of the total fighting force than it actually does.  It beggars belief that it’s as low as 10% (and that 7.8 million men lived to tell the tale).  What is it about the Western Front that has inspired so many plays as opposed to other theatres of war during WW1?  My great-grandfather served in Palestine for his part.  With a few stats, it appears that at any one time, 46% of soldiers were serving away from France and Flanders in places like Egypt, Palestine, Mesopotamia, Italy and Gallipoli.  Where are those plays?

But I suspect the theatre’s love affair with the Western Front endures for several reasons.  For the fact that it was so geographically close, that it was meant to be over so quickly, that it quickly fell into stalemate, that mass conscription meant that almost everyone can count a relative within a few generations who served.  That the roots of so many modern conflicts that dominate the news today have their roots in the clumsy decisions made at the end of the war.  But amongst other things, it’s a very basic human desire to understand.  To know why so many died, to ask whether it could’ve been different.  Or possibly, to be horrified.  To reinforce our view that so many men who went to fight for King and country died for no gain whatsoever.  Because it’s easier to shake our heads at futility than to say that the outcome of the war (which inevitably led to WW2) was worth that unprecedented scale of bloodshed.

In Doctor Scroggy’s War, recently on at Shakespeare’s Globe, it focuses briefly on the Battle of Loos and the use of poison gas; the strategy of which was pinned on the availability and position of French troops rather than the weather.  In spite of the forecast indicating that wind direction would cause the gas would blow back onto their own troops, the operation went ahead.  Generals were adamant that it was too late to call off the attack, even though they knew that they were condemning untold numbers of men to certain death.  In the places where soldiers were able to make a breakthrough, reinforcements were too far away to be of any use, or sent on their way too late so that when they arrived at the front line, they were exhausted and in no fit state to bolster momentum.  Any ground gained was soon lost – within a matter of weeks, positions reverted to as they had been before and almost 60,000 men had been killed or wounded.  It is said of Loos that the tragedy is not in the failure, but in how close they came to succeeding, if only the back up had been ready and waiting.

888,246 is not a number we should ever be comfortable with.  Art in its various guises, whether it’s a moatful of ceramic poppies, a play or a TV dramatisation, routinely keeps that wound open and serves to remind us of a war fought with so little consideration for human life.

Lest we forget indeed.

Flowers of the Forest – Jermyn Street Theatre

You probably haven’t heard of Flowers of the Forest.  It hasn’t been performed in the UK in almost 70 years.  In the centenary year of the outbreak of the First World War, it is one of the lost plays from between the wars now being brought to a new audience.  The play starts on an afternoon in 1934: Naomi and Lewis Jacklin are in a marriage of convenience, having both lost their first loves during the War.  When an old box of records is brought down from the attic, it triggers a flashback to two evenings in 1914 and 1916, before returning to the same scene in 1934 later in the evening.

This first scene is a bit slow to get going – it’s mostly set up for things to come.  We have the conflicting opinions of two different generations; the naivety youth in the fervent pacifist, Leonard Dobie (Max Wilson) and the firm belief that the war was right and just by both Naomi (Sophie Ward) and Lewis (Mark Straker), otherwise their loved ones fought and died for nothing.  Naomi’s sister, Mercia (Debra Penny) comes across as a bit of a misery-guts, old before her time.  Lewis’ young secretary, Beryl (Victoria Rigby) is fixated with the poetry of Richard Newton-Clare (of the changing sentiments and his unfinished works), a man Naomi once knew before he was killed in the War.  Eventually, we get a much needed (and very clever) set change to take us back to the war.

Gabriel Vick and Sophie Ward. Photo by Hala Mufleh

My tickets for Flowers of the Forest were courtesy of Bargain Theatre.  To read the review in full, please click here.

Flowers of the Forest is on at the Jermyn Street Theatre until Saturday 18th October 2014.  For tickets and more information, please go to http://www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk/ 

Doctor Scroggy’s War – Shakespeare’s Globe

100 years ago, men found themselves fighting in the early battles of WW1 and women were staffing the field hospitals, receiving the first casualties of mechanised warfare. Men either died, or were left permanently disfigured. Medical techniques of the time were woefully inadequate for repairing the damage caused by shelling and machine gun fire, particularly to the face. A century later, we live in a world where plastic and reconstructive surgery is widely available, innovative, versatile and generally safe – for that, we can thank pioneering medic, Harold Gillies.

It’s 1915: the play follows Jack Twigg (Will Featherstone), a working class lad bright enough to go to Oxford who signs up along with his university friend, Lord Ralph Dulwich (Joe Jameson) as a young officer. Both bright eyed and bushy tailed, with illusions of going off to “smash the Hun”. A chance meeting at a party at the Ritz sees Jack accidentally take Ralph’s promotion (and has a night of passion with Ralph’s friend, Lady Penelope Wedgwood – a rather feline Catherine Bailey) and sets both men on 2 different courses.  We see many sides of Jack throughout the play: his initial gusto, his outspoken nature when he sees a flaw in the plan of the smug Field Marshall John French (Paul Rider) when planning the ill-fated Battle of Loos, his fear that to press the issue may cost him his position, and his discomfort amongst the upper classes.

James Garnon as Harold Gillies. Photo by Mark Douet.

We also meet the affable and slightly eccentric Major Harold Gillies (James Garnon – a regular face at Shakespeare’s Globe), a surgeon trying his best to find a way to repair the terrible facial wounds of injured soldiers brought back from the front. He is wonderfully flippant – he knows that the men he treats are so gravely injured that if he doesn’t operate, they’ll die anyway, so he might as well try to repair the damage and give them a chance at life – although his early attempts are unsuccessful as he tries to do too much at once. He slowly refines his technique, but survival brings other repercussions in the form of mental trauma. So at night, the mysterious kilted and bearded ‘Doctor Scroggy’, (Gillies’ alter ego) tiptoes through the wards, dispensing jokes, mischief and Champagne to the convalescing soldiers.

The play snaps in and out of little asides to the audience. There are occasional moments where it’s not exactly clear whether they’re speaking to us or to another character, and it often darts between the two – but it is seamless. It’s a great way to convey the inner thoughts. There’s something haunting when Jack kneels down to say “you all know what’s going to happen to me, don’t you?”, the sense of dread that he too will have his face shattered beyond recognition. The nurses (Holly Morgan, Catherine Bailey and Daisy Hughes – all slightly squeamish to begin with) graphically describe the process of hot, spinning shrapnel taking off a man’s jaw, ear, nose…. and Jack is whisked away to Gillies’ hospital.

Rhiannon Oliver as Catherine Black and Will Featherstone as Jack Twigg. Photo by Mark Douet.

There is a perfect illustration of ‘before and after’ of the healing process, which made me want to laugh and cry simultaneously. As the wounded Jack is wheeled in, mumbling that he wants them to end his life, the heartbreaking devastation is broken by 3 bandaged patients in fancy dress boisterously chasing each other through the ward. There is hope. There is life after trauma. But it is a slow process. One of my favourite lines was Gillies asking Jack “what sort of nose do you want?… I’m going to give you a new one, so you might as well be happy with it.” The play is smattered throughout with black humour and little gems like this.

But Gillies knew that it was not enough to repair the face – he had to heal the psychological damage as well. James Garnon is delightfully impish and warm as Doctor Scroggy, with a real tenderness when attending to the soldiers experiencing disturbing flashbacks and as he counsels them through the catharsis of admitting that they miss the fear, the bodies, the dirt and the horror.  That they would do anything to go back, the feeling that the opportunity to do their duty has been snatched away from them.  The play is very poignant, partly because these issues are still very present today; as young men and women return from tours in Iraq and Afghanistan with physical and mental scars, medicine moves forward. The advances in identifying and treating Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as well as micro-surgery. But overall, it is the fortitude of the human spirit that shines through. Well worth a watch if you can catch it.

Dr Scroggy’s War is playing until Friday 10th October 2014 at Shakespeare’s Globe, 21 New Globe Walk, Bankside, London, SE1 9DT. Contains strong language.  For tickets and more information go to http://www.shakespearesglobe.com/theatre/whats-on/globe-theatre/doctor-scroggys-war

Lost Boy – Finborough Theatre

If I told you that I was going to see the world premiere of a brand new musical in London and to sit in the middle of the second row for just £16.00, would you believe me?  I thought not.  But the Finborough Theatre (small, yet perfectly formed) holds about 50 people and allows everyone a close-up of the stage.  As we are now into 2014, the Finborough have a whole season planned that includes plenty of new and old material to mark the centenary of the First World War.  Lost Boy is the story of the characters from J M Barrie’s Peter Pan now that they are all young adults.  For playwright Phil Wilmott, it struck him that the children who grew up reading Peter Pan would’ve been amongst the youngest to fight in the trenches; would their childhood of escapism and make-believe be to their advantage or their detriment as they are about to face one of the worst conflicts in human history?

We begin on the battlefield with J M Barrie’s adopted son, Captain George Llewelyn Davies (Steven Butler) and his fresh-faced troops as the horrors of war begin to take hold.  With other men taking turns to be on watch for the night, he drifts off to sleep and in his dream, he is a grown up Peter Pan.  There is something strangely chilling about the juxtaposition of the khaki green officer’s uniform and his mischievous demeanour – legs astride, hands on hips, chin up – ready for acts of derring do and thwarting enemies.  There is a subtle emphasis on how for the young men who went fearlessly on an ‘awfully big adventure’ to the trenches, the warmth and security of home must have become their Neverland.  Butler strikes just the right balance between excitable petulance and vulnerability.

Wendy Darling (Grace Gardner) is prim, proper and inadvertently finds herself falling back into the ‘mother’ role; John Darling (Richard James-King) makes for a likeable Edwardian geek with a touch of eccentricity.  Michael Darling (Joseph Taylor) has a real gentleness to his character – he couldn’t possibly be less suited to warfare – in the opening scene I was most drawn to the sheer terror in his face.  Mr Darling (Andrew C Wadsworth) is stern with a hint of warmth, but he also doubles as Captain Hook where he gets to really exercise his panto villain muscles as a devious military man.  Tinkerbell (Joanna Woodward) has gone from flighty fairy to broken, vengeful harlot – in spite of her bile, she somehow manages to be a sympathetic character.  The remaining cast play multiple smaller roles with good characterisation from all.

Musical highlights include Lost Boys Reunion about an Edwardian lads night out, and John and the Ensemble singing Jungian Dream Analysis, an inspired wordy foot-tapping song, reminiscent of Tom Lehrer.  Act One closes with the whole company singing Once More, a song that almost feels too big for such a petite stage and threatens to burst the walls of the theatre.  The song First Aid is perhaps one of the most distressing of all, not least for the expressions on the faces of the cast; for the young women who also grew up reading Peter Pan, nothing could possibly have prepared them for the horrors they would face working in the field hospitals as nurses.  There is also a beautiful contemporary dance section performed by Luka Markus and Lauren Cocoracchio.

The only niggle I have (and it’s a very tiny one) is the way that this musical toys with your emotions.  I mean this in the sense that as we hurtle towards the inevitable devastating end, where the audience are choked with sadness and willing to be moved, an ill-timed bit of comedy cabaret snuck in and broke the illusion; at that point I really feared that the play was going against its purpose.  Thankfully this was short lived and Mr Darling returns to deliver some truly poignant and profound words: that the real George Llewelyn Davies is believed to have died with a copy of Peter Pan in his pocket – possibly the one source of comfort into which he could retreat.

This is a pertinent new musical to mark the 100 year anniversary of the First World War.  I really hope it pops up again beyond its current run and I might just have to see how compares when it transfers to the Charing Cross Theatre in mid January….

Lost Boy is on at the Finborough Theatre, 118 Finborough Road, London, SW10 9ED until Saturday 11th January and then transfers to the Charing Cross Theatre, The Arches, Villiers Street, London, WC2N 6NL from Monday 13th January to Saturday 15th February.  Suitable for ages 12+. For tickets and information go to http://www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk/productions/2014/lost-boy.php