A CENTURY ON, THEY WALK BEFORE US
It was gruesome, politically problematic, tragic and heroic and wasteful; it was a turning-point in history. I have written before about how live, (very often fringe) theatre more than any other media has provoked fruitful reflection on the effects of WW1 (that article here, http://tinyurl.com/q53tp5p ). Now the Finborough, with its eclectic specialization of long- forgotten or brand-new work, briefly brings back last May’s two-man play written and directed by John Burrows.
Very fine it is too, framed as a tall tale from ex-Tommies busking with banjo and fiddle in the grim broke years after the war. It was a time when homes and jobs for the “heroes” failed to materialize and Lloyd George’s government genuinely feared a revolution to mirror the Bolsheviks who halfway through had taken the Tsar’s Russia out of the war.
David Brett and Gareth Williams are the men, bemedalled in a stony outdoor bleakness before a tattered Kitchener poster demanding “another 100,000 men”. Their first number (there are a few, though it is far from being a musical) catches that resigned, upbeat melancholy of WW1 songs. Proudly they identify themselves as volunteers, from the two first years before conscription started, but then embark on the story of one fictional conscript: Private Percy Cotton and his fickle girlfriend at home, Nellie. The yarn covers four years, culminating in an odd involvement in the brilliant, conciliatory government gesture of bringing home one “Unknown Warrior” from the fields of death for a grand, communal funeral at the Cenotaph. The stories interwind: the spiritualist fraud Nellie and her willing seduction by a titled official at the War Office, the bereaved parents of a young officer and their servants, Lloyd George himself in anxiety and calculation during the war and its aftermath.
It is told with remarkable wit, the pair sliding in and out of characters with consummate skill: Brett is often young Percy but becomes the lecherous politico Sir Gregory and – with particularly effective stiff poignancy – the bereaved mother Lady Elizabeth. Williams is a splendidly affected and self-serving Nellie and a host of others. They use no costumes except two tin hats for rapid moves to the trenches, and only brisk narrative moments, but the clarity is exemplary. As for the payoff, Burrows creates a double irony in the first ever Two Minutes’ Silence, and we gasp.
O844 847 1522 to 26 Jan, Sun-Tues only