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STONY BROKE IN NO MAN’S LAND – Finborough Theatre, London

stonybrokePart of the Finborough’s impressive TheGreatWar100 series, charting WWI through Theatre and performance, Stony Broke in No Man’s Land returns to the venue which hosted its world premier in May last year. Well received then, for very good reason, the play reunites David Brett and Gareth Williams in a two-hander, playing 21 characters between them in a series of three interconnected stories.

Using the lyrics to the wartime song of the same name, the play is driven by the differences between those who either volunteered or were called-up to serve in the fields of France, and those who stayed behind in Blighty for whatever reason. Here, we’re focusing on the consequences of the war, especially the problem of what to do with millions of men returning to a country broken by years of conflict. The song’s lyrics, and the play, reflect the realities of veteran life: “I can’t get the old job, can’t get the new” in a direct betrayal of a promise that once their service is done their old job would be waiting for them.

Private Percy Cotton was called-up in 1916 and we track him through the trenches, in Russia and brief forays back to London. A second narrative line comes from Nellie Mottram, the girl Percy is convinced he will marry and who goes on to forge a career out of being a psychic medium to high-society in London during the war, one of the more difficult characters to pin down. Tied into these two strands is the story of Sir Arthur and Lady Elizabeth Munroe, wealthy parents of Percy’s first commanding officer who was killed in action and their friend (and secretary to the prime minister Lloyd George) Sir Gregory Sleight who sets Nellie up in an apartment for the dual purposes of giving her a place to receive clients, and to have her close at hand for the affair he plans to conduct. Things all come to a head with the planning and execution of the burial in 1920 of the Unknown Warrior, an event in which all parties have a contribution to make.

Told through almost a series of vignettes with the two men taking on all the roles, ably assisted by a violin and a banjolele, tin hats, a table and some packing crates as props, it’s a strongly emotional piece about war and its impact on soldiers, their families and the country. Percy, played by David Brett, is the link through each storyline, placing the diary of the Munroe’s dead son into the hands of Nellie who uses it to kick start her career as a medium, sending messages from “the other side”. He’s not an impressive man, a follower not a leader who moons over Nellie though she clearly has no interest in marriage with him. He is perfect as an avatar for all Tommy’s though, a bleak wartime experience with injury and loss, rejection at home, a frustrating return and ultimately an undistinguished death.

Nellie is a bit more complicated. Gareth Williams turns her into a flirty coquette, with war either providing opportunity a Selfridge’s shop girl couldn’t have dreamed about in peacetime, or giving her calculating con-artist side an airing with grieving families desperate for news of their dead sons. The other characterisations from Brett and Williams are very pleasing, running from shades of Norman Wisdom as an excitable boy to twinkle-eyed gravitas from Lloyd George.

Written and directed by John Burrows the play is formatted well to suit the material, looking to almost traditional storytelling methods rather than a modern drama. There are passages of moralising digression that could discreetly be sliced out, but overall these three strands form a strong plait, elucidating a wider truth about the micro and macro impact of the Great War and what mass demob actually meant in practice. Dotted with black/bleak trench humour and music from the period, the play is more an evocation than a fable. There is a moral here, but rather than aiming for a direct hit, we’re given a chance to let this lesson build layer on layer.  

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Reviewed 12/01/16

By Karl O’Doherty

10th January – 26th January
Finborough Theatre, London, SW10 9ED.

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