The Finborough is going through a golden patch at present. Its current and continuing series of plays organized around the centenary of the First World War has turned out to be a focus for sustained serious reflection on the pity of war and the ramifications and distortions of its commemoration that has not been matched in the West End. John Burrows’ meditation on these themes, directed by the author, and with all the roles performed by David Brett and Gareth Williams, was first performed there last May, and now returns for a well-deserved second outing. Here is my review of that first performance. It’s the kind of intimate dramatic chamber music that leaves a longer-lasting resonance than many a bombastic symphony.
Two elderly men enter wearing shabby suits and greatcoats with a line of medals sewn on the front. One carries a violin, the other a banjo, and they launch like a couple of faded buskers into a post-war song of protest and regret:
In Piccadilly friends pass me by
I’m absolutely stranded in the Strand
But I confess I was contented more or less
When I was stony broke in No Man’s Land
This song brackets the play and establishes one of the key themes explored over the two acts: the failure of the British Government to live up to its promises to the returning soldiers. Neither ‘the war to end all wars’ nor ‘homes for heroes’ come to pass. Instead commemoration becomes a matter of placing a symbolic capstone over national grief in the form of the cenotaph and the tomb of the Unknown Warrior.
One of the great strengths of this play is the way that these large themes are made real and concrete to us in the audience through the life stories of individual ordinary men and women caught up in the war.
Over twenty characters are brought to life by Brett and Williams in a genuine, sharedtour de force– though that is rather too showy a term for the gentle, subtle and shaded acting that evokes all these men and women. We travel from London to the Somme and to Russia and back to London as the full grim implications of the slaughter of World War One are played out, with musical interludes to capture the emotion of the moment through the popular songs of the day.
At the heart of the story is a three-way relationship between Percy Cotton, an enlisted soldier, his girlfriend, Nellie Mottram, and Sir Gregory Sleight, a senior civil servant with the ear of Prime Minister David Lloyd George. Nellie, like so many abandoned sweethearts, finds that wartime is a time of opportunity for her on all fronts, professionally and romantically, while Percy encounters only death and destruction on the Western Front.
Nellie acquires a dead officer’s diary, which Percy wants to return to the deceased’s parents. Instead she uses it as the starting point of her new career as a medium reaching out to contact the dead so as to provide some vestigial comfort for the bereaved. This in turn provides access to high society that allows her to get established as the protégé of Sleight and ultimately to obtain the ear of Lloyd George who is desperately seeking the correct form of commemorative compensation for the decision not to repatriate the British war-dead.
Out of the semi-comic aspects of spiritualism comes one of the crucial symbols of post-war closure and national reconciliation that arguably turns Britain away from a revolutionary path akin to Russia’s. But for the former soldiers such as Percy, there are no ready solutions or rewards: British or German, their fortunes are still as bleak as a painting by Otto Dix. It is fascinating in itself to hear the real-life political back-story of commemoration, and the mixture of motives that went it to it.
We have seen in the sea of poppies at the Tower of London, however powerful such symbols can still be when they have a unifying simplicity about them. But what impresses above all here is the way in which the noblest of aspirations can run together with the grubbiest of political chicanery, and how the apparent charlatanry of Spiritualism nevertheless met a specific and real need for counselling and comfort in a society where the stiff upper lip still prevailed. There is an ambiguity and mixture of motive here, which is very true to life, and refreshingly distant from much black-and-white moralised coverage of the Home Front.
The roles are divided equally between the two players, in weight if not in number, with Brett taking on a smaller number of characters, but all of them large parts. When you first see the two of them together you think you have encountered Vladimir and Estragon out of time, and there certainly are echoes of Beckett, and for that matter of Charlie Chaplin, in their performances. However there is a lot more heart and comedy than darkness and despair as the evening progresses.
Williams scores particularly well playing the cunning, charming, flighty, dodgy characters who do well out of the war: Nellie herself, always with a charming ready answer to head off potential exposure; Lloyd George, full of rhetorical wizardry and skilful in staying ahead of the popular mood. He has a great gift, well beyond mimicry, for finding vocal and gestural credibility in characters that in no way resemble him physically.
Brett’s roles are less extrovert and his skill is in drawing you into the dignified mental space of his roster of damaged participants. There is Percy himself, full of quiet, self-deprecating innocence abroad, whom you quickly learn will never last the course (though the way in which this happens is still a shock and surprise). There is the upper-crust grieving mother, desperate to escape the corset of conventional self-restraint and find her son again through Spiritualism; and then there is knowing, sly, sceptical Sir Gregory, committed to no one and seeing, in good Yes, Minister fashion, a political opportunity in every disaster. These are all finely modulated and rounded cameos.
With a plethora of films and plays about the tragedy and waste of the Great War I wondered initially whether there would be scope for the themes addressed here to touch me – the veins of both satire and mourning have been well worked after all. But in its oblique yet quietly insistent way this two-hander brought home the lingering effects of war on the bereaved and on those left behind more powerfully than many big-budget dramas. It would be excellent to see Brett and Williams repeat their performances on a national tour so that Stony Broke can reach out to a broader audience across the country in these years of commemoration.