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ARMSTRONG’S WAR – Finborough Theatre, London.

armstrong's warTheatre can be a great escape from a somewhat gloomy reality; conversely, it is an incredibly effective medium for debating and dramatizing important issues. The Finborough is on a roll when it comes to the latter, and with its latest offering, a smart, thought-provoking two-hander, it can add military presence in Afghanistan and the nature of modern heroism to the list.

What makes Armstrong’s War fascinating viewing is that it tackles this hot-button topic from a rather different perspective. While literary and dramatic interpretations of British and American soldiers’ experiences have flooded the marketplace in the past few years, we’re less familiar with the plight of the Canadian armed forces, despite the fact that Canada has deployed thousands of troops since 9/11 in its most intense combat commitment since the Korean War.

Colleen Murphy’s intelligent 90-minute play, set in 2007, asks searching questions about the role of NATO forces in Afghanistan, the legacy of intervention and the emotional toll such action takes on young soldiers like Michael Armstrong, who is grappling with rehabilitation in a hospital in Ottawa and struggling to balance terrible personal loss against uncertain geopolitical gains.

All of which could make for rather bleak viewing, but Murphy has an ace up her sleeve: fearless, irrepressibly chipper 12-year-old girl guide Halley, who, though facing challenges of her own due to physical disability, will brook no opposition to her plans. This wheelchair-bound dynamo has selected Michael for six sessions of bedside reading in order to earn her community service badge, and inevitably, what begins as mutual antagonism soon becomes a heart-warming tale of friendship and growth.

That Armstrong’s War follows a relatively predictable course is its most glaring weakness, but the singular treatment of a familiar story lends this piece irresistible appeal. The point of connection between battle-weary souls is the transformative power of storytelling, as a means of escape and a source of healing, and Murphy filters the wider debates through the immediate experience of two gratifyingly complex individuals.

Jennifer Bakst’s precise production has some beautifully joyous moments, as Michael becomes caught up in Halley’s whirlwind passion for stories and a bond begins to form, plus well-earned climactic pathos. Mark Quartley runs the gamut of emotions, but keeps his performance effectively understated, while Jessica Barden, scene-stealing on screen in Tamara Drewe and Hanna and on stage in Jerusalem, here proves to be equally adept as comedienne and dramatic actress.

Barden perfectly conveys the heightened passions of a tweenage girl, fervent in her beliefs, operatic in her relationships, solemnly parroting the wisdom of grown-ups, but equally instinctive and empathetic. She revels in Halley’s quirks, from her breathy excitement when lost in a story to her whirl of hand gestures during a heated argument, yet at key emotional moments, she’s able to rein in her performance and find powerful beats of quiet, honest vulnerability.

The storytelling framework could use some editing – several scenes rely heavily on reading prose aloud, which is less involving than the characters communicating directly. Murphy could take some lessons from Matilda, which is a great model of translating fiction as medium and theme to drama. The limitations here are noticeable because the rest of the writing is strong, with witty interactions and meaty conflict over issues like quality of life, the responsibility of choice and the nature of courage.

When Michael and Halley challenge one another to confront difficult truths, without the smokescreen of comforting revisionist fiction, they also challenge us to confront an unpalatable part of recent history and the human cost of international action distanced by analytical journalism and statistics. That message is best conveyed when the play ditches its reliance on meta-narrative and trusts in its characters to communicate vital human truths.

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Reviewed 13/08/13/

By Marianka Swain
@mkmswain

11th – 27th Aug 2013
Finborough Theatre, London, SW10.

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