|The Waterloo Easterners: "The Invincibles" 2018|
After injury in the trenches my Great Uncle lived the rest of his life with shrapnel in his head, whilst my Grandfather almost died twice in postings in Mesopotamia and India: his outlook was changed forever by the Great War, his faith challenged not just in terms of religion but also his country and the way it was run.
Grandad was not one for football, he preferred rugby league and the game of 13 as played by Widnes RFC. He appreciated the team game and loyalty and he was with me tonight as I watched Michael Head’s passionate play based on Stephen Jenkins’ book, They Took The Lead.
In 1914 41 Orient FC players and staff – they were called Clapham Orient at the time before changing to Leyton Orient – signed up to fight in the Great War. It would all be over by Christmas and they hoped to be back to complete the season but in the spirit of the times they felt they had to do their bit. The participation of footballers in the conflict was inevitable once the war had begun to generate losses among the fans and families and no other team sent as many professionals as The O’s to what became known as The Footballer’s Battalion; the 17th Battalion Middlesex Regiment.
Club Captain Fred “Spider” Parker was the first to sign up at a special meeting at Fulham Town Hall in December 1914 and he was quickly followed by ‘keeper Jimmy Hugall and lead striker Richard McFadden: working class men of conscience and courage who wanted to do their bit.
|Richard McFadden and William Jonas before the war|
Head’s play takes eight of the O’s leading lights and cleverly shows their relationships evolve from before the war to their fateful experiences in France.
The club manager Billy Holmes is played with authority, period moustached and Mancunian accent by Michael Greco who plays with authority, linking so well with his team as befits the character who moulded one of the great O’s sides. Holmes had scouted and then signed Scotsman Richard McFadden (here payed by James Phelps who I almost didn't recognise without the red hair...), Mac was a naturalised Geordie having moved to Blyth as a boy and played for Wallsend Park Villa before Holmes came calling. Phelps plays the role of natural leader and on and off-the-pitch hero well and is the moral core of the team.
Stephen Bush plays Mac’s best mate, William Jonas – the ladies’ favourite and much banter pays tribute to his team mates’ jealousy in this regard. Head, as he has proved before with the excellent Worth a Flutter, writes social interplay naturalistically and, crucially, makes it funny – you join in and you feel part of the dressing room as the guys match wits.
|James Phelps and Stephen Bush play Mac and Bill Jonas|
Jonas’ girl is Mary Jane is played by Victoria Gibson who gives a cracking performance as the lass out of her environment and who has courage of her own, refusing to tell her husband that she is expecting just when he announces his departure: MJ is a very believable character at a time when fear makes men rowdy and distracted, she looks to a bleak future. Mac’s wife is played by Helena Doughty who is also good, wanting more of her hero at a time when his qualities were needed in double dose by the team.
Jack Harding leads from the front in playing Captain Fred “Spider” Parker who inspires his men through the mud of pitch and trench – writing and then casting a play like this must be so difficult; you need the right characters for the mix to work, and the spirit amongst players and the, erm, players is spot on, a mix of Head’s writing as well as Adam Mooney’s direction.
Head himself plays Herbert “Jumbo” Reason, generously casting himself as the player most likely to cheat on cross-country runs; as someone who regularly used to head off to the chippy with all the other asthmatics I empathise! Jumbo’s verbal sparring with Nolan “Peggy” Evans, the club clown are a delight and Paul Marlon brings so much energy to this role. The team is completed by Mackem George Scott (Scott Kyle) a natural-born fighter and goalie Jimmy Hugall (Tom Stocks) who is another butt of changing room banter but nevertheless is determined to work his way through a dictionary to improve his language.
|James Phelps and Michael Greco|
Head takes this ensemble on a journey from their North East beginnings through pre-war league success, romance and friendship and, when War finally comes, the impact is all the more devastating on these characters we’ve identified and bonded with for the first hour. It’s a skill to set up that balance and to establish character so convincingly well.
Throughout the photographs of the original O’s are present on the wall of the changing room set and, as one-by-one, they are added to with a portrait marking their death, the loss is painfully felt as it connects with our own relationship with this war and beyond. It is 100 years but I’m old enough to have seen the impacts on the generation above my parents and still, this carries on: my cousin is a Royal Marine and his best mate was killed in Afghanistan weeks before he could be best man at his wedding.
If we don’t keep on remembering, we’re not only failing those in our families who fought we’re failing future generations who will always be called upon when jaw-jaw fails and only war is left. Knowledge of the consequences is vital if we are not to make cheap decisions… We must never forget.
|Clapton Orient in 1914|
Which is also why Michael stood at the front selling poppies and The Greater Game is part of the Football Remembers 1918-2018 initiative supported by the EPL, EFL, PFA and the FA.
Leyton Orient Supporters Club are also involved along with former player Peter Kitchen who co-produced. The O’s have arranged a number of trips over to the battlefields where their players fought and died and it is humbling to see this community club being so mindful of it history and the people who combined together make then great.
Where I come from we say, You’ll Never Walk Alone, and from what I’ve seen, this lot never will either.
The Greater Game plays at the Waterloo East Theatre until 25th November and tickets are available from the box office or online.
IThankYou Rating: **** A great story of real-life heroes told exceptionally well; I urge you to support this play and these players!