POPPYFIELDS The Musical
Crescent Theatre, Birmingham, Saturday 9th November, 2019
This new show from Dreamworks Productions arrives in Birmingham in good time for Remembrance Sunday. After four years of centenary commemorations, when the First World War was at the forefront of our minds, it is important to keep the ball rolling 101 years since the Armistice, and 102 and 103… you get what I’m saying. The trick is, with a glut of material out there, to present ideas in a new way while at the same time respecting the reality and meeting audience expectations. It’s a big ask.
John Howard’s script focusses on a love story between mild-mannered man of principle from the working class with the daughter of the local gentry, a star-cross’d lovers deal with the class divide like a trench between them. He, our protagonist, glories in the unlikely name of Tommy Gunn, and no matter how many times he is beaten to a pulp by warmongering peers, he is adamant he will not harm his fellow man. She, our leading lady, Elizabeth, is involved in the movement for women’s suffrage and is not shy to speak out against her snooty, authoritarian father (David Wright, who later doubles as a German captive). There’s a subplot about Tommy’s best mate Freddie getting his lady-friend Maisie up the duff, leading to a hasty wedding, before, wouldn’t you know it, the lads are conscripted and sent off “on ‘oliday to Flanders”.
There is everything you expect: white feathers, lovers parting, underage conscripts, write-every-day, and over-by-Christmas, delivered with conviction by the mainly young cast. As Tommy, Tom Scott shows us the courage of a man going against the tide to stick to his morals, contrasting with his nervousness of chatting to a girl for the first time. Daniella Williams’s Elizabeth has fire in her belly, a modern woman ahead of her time. Jack Henderson brings humour and immense appeal as Freddie, while Jodie Welch’s Maisie is endearing – there is a duet at their wedding which is especially effective.
There is some excellent character work from Derek Willis, first as bleating army officer Carruthers, and later as good-humoured Welshman Taffy in the trenches. Alex Tompkinson makes an impression as Harry, a fourteen-year-old who lies his way into the war; likewise Ellie Pugh as Tommy’s sister Tilly attempting to enlist disguised as a boy; and I also enjoy Molly Jane Cheesman as Tommy’s mum – especially in her spat with Emily Walker as Lady Victoria. The strong cast bring the material to life beyond the scope of its clichés.
The score, however, is a weakness of the production. If you’re going to use contemporary arrangements and pop-style singing, you have to be consistent. The modern sound will link the period story to the present, showing that people then are just like people now, so we can identify with their losses. Here though, new songs in a modern idiom are uneasy bedfellows with more traditional-sounding numbers, including standard tunes like Men Of Harlech (a rousing rendition by the Suffragettes) and the almost obligatory Pack Up Your Troubles. It is the older-sounding songs that come over best and give authenticity to the piece. There is no defining ‘voice’ to the music, probably due to the long list of songwriters credited in the programme.
Also, there are scenes crying out for songs. The Gunn family get one, to establish their cheery working-class deprivation; the Fitzgeralds in the big house don’t. The scene where the lads enlist could be set to music… This is a musical that needs more music, and music that has a consistent sound. And it’s a shame because the dramatic side of proceedings delivers some hugely powerful moments. We are given the humanity of the characters – they are more than mindboggling statistics – and the rousing finale goes beyond the fictional community singing about their boys, to all of us in the real world and the debt we all owe.
As it stands, the show has potential. To realise it, it needs to pick a musical style and run with it. Personally, I prefer the period-style numbers; the others are, dare I say it, too ‘poppy’.