A JOURNEY THROUGH WAR
Blue Orange Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 18th July, 2017
In this new piece from On The Floor Theatre, a versatile cast of four lead us through a whistle-stop series of sketches that track the entire span of the First World War – we are now in the third year of the centenary, remember – condensing four years of extreme experience into just 55 minutes of traffic on the stage. It begins with the prologue from Henry V, Shakespeare’s eloquent plea to have us imagine what he is unable to stage, and it couldn’t be more fitting. Director Matthew Tweedale intersperses scenes of domestic life with poetry – juxtaposing personal scenes with grander emotions, as expressed by the likes of Wilfred Owen and John McCrae.
An emblematic, narrative style works on our imaginations, our intellects and our heartstrings – and yet there is plenty of humour to it as well. The swiftly changing scenes, depicted by a change of top by the cast members, economically takes us from the home front to the trenches and back again. There seems to be an emphasis on the experiences of those left behind – the women – and just about everything is covered from recruitment drives to conscription, white feathers, the horrors of the trenches, the letters home, the notices of death, Votes for Women, and those men who came back forever changed or damaged. We don’t get long to dwell – each sketch could easily yield a longer drama of its own – but this is like an introduction to the War, or revision notes for those who have heard it all before.
Victoria Piper and Grace Bussey play the wives and mothers left at home, from wide-eyed patriotism to fervent campaigning and stoical grief. Jason Homewood and Andy Evans are the fathers, husbands, sons, boyfriends who sign up and learn the truth the hard way. This skillful quartet populates the stage with humanity, however stylised; we recognise at once who each person is, where they are and what they are going through. A particularly effective scene has Homewood suffering from PTSD; another has Piper losing most of her sons… It’s all familiar ground but is here delivered so stylistically and effectively, the piece is alive with freshness and the power to cut right to the heart of each set-up. There is no time to dwell or reflect – we can do that when the show’s over. It’s all wrapped up with ‘In Flanders Fields’ by which point we have all been through the wringer or in the wars ourselves.
The commitment of the cast, the inventiveness of the direction and the exuberance of the performance make this a striking piece that delivers familiar words and familiar situations in a refreshing theatrical package. A hundred years ago the war was still raging – this play is a timely reminder of all sorts of things, not least of the dangers of public opinion that is so strongly influenced by the press. Some lessons we have yet to learn!