The Greater Game features a sensational story which is deserving of attention and very useful as a history lesson for any who needs to be reminded about the cost of World War 1. It’s the story of the Orient football team from South London who signed up en masse to fight in the 1914-1918 war. The men stood together and the end tally of lives lost or forever changed reflects the statistics of that war. Superb performances from Connor Kelly, Charlie Clement and Gregg Baxter help the play have real impact.
You need good friends out here and there’s no-one else I’d rather fight beside.
Comrades in arms are at the centre of The Greater Game which is set in the time of the Great War, the war to end all wars, World War 1. Written by Michael Head, and based on They Took the Lead by Stephen Jenkins, the play was commissioned as part of The Royal British Legion’s Sports Remembers Campaign.
Currently playing at the Southwark Playhouse, the play features a sensational story which is deserving of attention and very useful as a history lesson for any who need to be reminded. The problem is that this particular version, though generally well acted, is overlong and loses its audience. The narrative is often lost amongst a plethora of short scenes, some of which are repetitive and don’t advance the story and are, therefore, redundant. There are however, enough gems in the story and individual scenes which work to warrant further development of the script.
It’s the story of the Clapton Orient football team from South London who signed up en masse to fight in the 1914-1918 war. The men stood together and the end tally reflects the statistics of that war: of the seven men who fought together, three were killed, three were invalided out, and only Spider, the former team captain, returned physically unharmed.
The more effective scenes in the play centre around death. The first to die isn’t even a member of the football team. Jonus, a fifteen year old boy, lied about his age so that he could go and fight with the team that he loved. Charlie Eales plays Jonus with an innocence that ensures emotional impact.
The second man to fall is Willy Jonas, the newest member of the team, played here by Will Howard. Howard makes his character a convincing hero. When he leaves for war, he leaves behind a new wife, who waits patiently for his return. He joins up with his best friend, Richard, for the ultimate adventure.
But when the group are in a tight corner in battle, it is Willy who sacrifices himself to provide a diversion so that the others can escape. The moment that Willy moves silently from the group is one of the strongest of the play; Howard is compelling.
The next man to die is shot after being captured by the enemy and interrogated. He was the serious man of the group, George Scott. His antipathy with team mate Nolan “Peggy” Evans provides comic relief throughout the show. Graeme McKnight plays the prickly character of Scott, and makes a perfect fall guy Danny Walters’ quick- quip master, “Peggy”. McKnight’s final scene shows real strength and it’s the relationship established between his character and Walters’ that provides colour and depth to the scenes in which they feature.
Another death scene stands out – this one involves is football hero Richard McFadden, the last soldier to fall, and his football captain, Fred “Spider” Parker. It’s another example of a strong connection between the actors, and Peter Hannah, as McFadden, exudes much charisma and confidence.
Charlie Clement is the powerhouse Parker, who is the lynch pin that holds the group together on the fields, both football and battle, and Clement is the actor that holds the play together. He skillfully ties the actors together as a group and his character’s letters home act as narration throughout the war scenes.
Unusually, and cleverly, the letters are half-spoken by Clement, and half spoken by Nick Handock’s football team manager, Billy Holmes, their recipient. Hancock plays Holmes with charm and sincerity.
Another highlight comes from the father/son relationship between Herbert “Jumbo” Reason and his son Young Mac. “Jumbo” is a rambunctious character played nicely by playwright Michael Head. Connor Kelly provides some of the most finely formed pieces of acting of the night as Young Mac. A scene toward the end of the play, when father and son are reunited after Jumbo had been reported as dead, is very moving.
Jimmy Hugall, the accident prone footballer, who never quite gets to fight alongside his team, cannot be forgotten. Gregg Baxter plays Jimmy with humour and warmth, and, in a dual role as the Major of the team’s unit, shows real versatility: he delineates this second character to be almost unrecognisable as one played by the same actor playing the loveable Hugall.
Two ladies complete the cast. They are the wives of Willy and McFadden and their characters are there to represent the home fires burning but it’s questionable as to whether there is a true dramatic purpose to their inclusion.
Nevertheless, Patsy Lowe makes a fine Isabella Mac. As Mary-Jane Jones, Laura Webb is often difficult to hear and seems very tentative in her role.
There is a complex but effective sound design from John Lennard that supports the action well, with the sounds of war contrasting with the birds of England. Lighting by Ben Wallace is simple but works well, particularly in the largest of the battle scenes with light ‘explosions’ all around the space. The costume design is very good with authentic uniforms and rifles looking splendid.
Tilly Vosburgh directs the production and has capably melded together the many facets of The Greater Game. The set design by Suzie Inglis was representative of time and space however the layout of the performance space was ill advised: setting action in the extreme corners made the scenes set there appear fragmented from the whole.
The Greater Game boasts some wonderful acting which enlivens an important narrative. This good work and intention suffers from an unpruned and inadequate script and a set that doesn’t quite work. Hopefully, the experience of this production will provide playwright and director with clear goals to allow The Greater Game to get into the right league of theatrical engagement.