Wednesday, 7 November 2018

With hope in your heart… The Greater Game, Waterloo East Theatre

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!

Saturday, 3 November 2018

Flying high in the unfriendly sky... Billy Bishop Goes To War, Jermyn Street Theatre

“Nobody shoots no one in Canada…”

What begins as a lightly humorous, jaunty tale about going to fight a war “that hardly feels like a war at all…” culminates in some mesmeric monologues about the intensity of war, the fascination of the kill and the bravery of men like Albert Ball who, though barely out of his teens, took down 44 German planes before succumbing to the brutal odds of war.

Billy Bishop outscored Ball (probably), he survived and to do that must have learned more tricks than almost anyone else in the matter of aerial conflict; even the Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen, got shot down from time to time. Bishop recalls his 46th kill when he strafed the underside of a two-seater reconnaissance plane and saw both pilot and gunner fall, unharmed, alive, fully conscious to their death many thousands of feet below: “almost as if they could feel him watching…” It is only after a while that you realise that you are holding your breath.

Set design is ace too Daisy Blower! All images courtesy of Robert Workman
Bishops “score” is open to debate but the fact remains that he was a highly successful combatant who saw more of death than most even during The Great War… and, even more importantly, he remains a Canadian hero and a marker on the country’s route to independence.

Charles Aitken makes for a dashing and believable Billy and so does Oliver Beamish as his older self. Aitken looks every inch the swashbuckling pilot and is so convincing as the Canadian misfit who makes the journey from military school drop out to unlikely officer and subsequently fighter pilot. Beamish plays piano and harmonises with his younger self, they toast at the same time and it’s fascinating to watch his memories flashing across the face as the younger man lives them – very “meta” but very engaging in the JST’s intimate space. The play was originally written for one actor and a pianist but this is a stroke of genius: the pianist is the character "looking back"...

As a British dominion, Canada’s foreign policy decisions were in the hands of the British government when war was declared in 1914, the country could, however, decide on its level of commitment to the conflict and duly sent an expeditionary force of 620,000 of whom 67,000 lost their lives and 250,000 were wounded. That’s some contribution and evidence of how “this country” maintained its position in the world a century ago.

Charles Aitken sings and Oliver Beamish plays
Billy somehow misses the first waves of troops but finally gets his passage on The Good Ship Caledonia which survives rough seas and an attack on the convoy to deliver him up for service in 1915. At first, he joins the cavalry but is eventually persuaded that the flying corps gives him the best chance of a good war, as he said himself: "it's clean up there! I'll bet you don't get any mud or horse shit on you up there. If you die, at least it would be a clean death."

Billy’s reckless style had him hanging by a thread when he met socialite Lady St. Helier when recuperating in London, she helped him complete his training and seems to have looked after his growing fame at home, ensuring he met everyone. Aitken plays her ladyship – and is convincing even in military uniform and both he and Beamish get through some 18 characters during the course of the play: I especially enjoyed a French nightclub scene which saw winks to the audience from the piano player and Aitken in an imagined boa, vamping up the audience.

I was reminded of William Wellman’s silent film classic Wings, the director had been a fighter pilot in the First World War as had one of his stars, Richard Arlen, who flew his own stunts in the film as did his co-star Charles Buddy Rogers, who had to learn to fly just for the film: the Right Stuff was more common in those days. The dog fights in this film must have been very much like the slow-motion game of cat and mouse Billy experienced, even on the day he evaded the Red Baron.

Gradually the tone gets more serious and the critique of the powers that were becomes more pointed. Written and composed by John Gray with Eric Peterson, the play was first performed 40 years ago and has developed over that time to include the older version of Billy as they too began the life-long process of re-evaluating their earlier deeds as an older man.

Thus, Billy Bishop Goes to War becomes a broader-themed discourse on age and memory and not just the high-speed life and death of the flyers who whilst they may well have been As Calm as The Ocean – an essential part of their slim hopes of survival – existed on a knife-edge of increasingly unlikely chance and possibilities.

Friends Ain't S'posed To Die, but sometimes, and often, they do… and the survivors spend the remainder of their lives haunted by guilt and, as in Billy’s case, trying to help younger men cope with yet more war.

Billy Bishop Goes to War is being presented by Proud Haddock in commemoration of the centenary of the Great War’s ending and as part of their War Season and Jermyn Street Theatre’s Rebels Season. 

Director Jimmy Walters described it as an inspiring story that is a privilege to revive and he stages it so well with two powerful performers who soon get you lost in the narrative, hanging on their words and imagining those incredibly fragile and brave young men, giving their all in service to country and Commonwealth… times have changed but not that much.

Billy plays until Saturday 24th November 2018 Monday – Saturday, 7.30pm Saturday matinees, 3.30pm  - tickets are available from the Box Office or Jermyn Street website.

IThankYou Rating: **** Hold your breath and hang on as your mind takes flight into dangerous skies. Not to be missed.

Poster featuring the actual Billy Bishop

Friday, 2 November 2018

Thee too… Measure for Measure, Donmar Warehouse

“…Dear Isabella,
I have a motion much imports your good;
Whereto if you'll a willing ear incline,
What's mine is yours and what is yours is mine.
So, bring us to our palace; where we'll show
What's yet behind, that's meet you all should know.”

To which Hayley Atwell’s Isabel turns to Duke Vincentio, and screams!

This was no ordinary Shakespeare and in taking such liberties with the text, was almost certainly not to the taste of many. Having no familiarity with the play, I was surprised – once again – about how the subject matter was so very now… almost as if, in the hands of a talented cast, the words find their true mark even in our contemporary minds, removed from their meaning by time and texting.

Measure for Measure is about justice and the casual ways in which access to the law can be traded for sexual favours: it’s a comedy but not really, this was a late-period play under a new monarch that opened the lid on the ways of the world be it legal, be it theatrical. Even Will may have had to turn a trick or two…

But, does this timeless tale of sexual give and take need much updating? The first half played things out in traditional period style with Hayley as Isabella fighting to save the life of her brother Claudio (Sule Rimi) who has been harshly sentenced to death for infidelity by Justice Frederick (Ben Allen) who has been placed in charge of legal judgement by Duke Vincentio (Nicholas Burns), who, for reasons of his owns, has opted to drop out of sight as a poor priest.

Nicholas Burns and Hayley Atwell
The Duke wants to see how things work without his wisdom and, sure enough soon finds Frederick being compromised by power as he suggests to the chaste Isabelle that the only way to save her brother is to sacrifice her honour to his lust. Now, hearing of this, the Duke/Priest hatches a plan to substitute the Justice’s former betrothed, Mariana (Helena Wilson), who willingly gives herself to the evil Fred in Isabella’s place, and the lecherous lawyer doesn’t even notice…

Now all of this will come to a head once the Duke reveals himself and there are neat Shakespearean ends all tied up as measure is swapped for measure but… are they? The ending of the play is left open and we never know if Isabella accepts the “reward” of the Duke’s love or, as here, throws it back in his face.

Now, this is where it gets troublesome as not only does Josie Rourke’s energetic production shift events forward to now, she re-runs the narrative only this time with a power-dressed Atwell as Justice Isabelle and Frederick as a meeker-than-Isabelle brother of Claudio. It works in part as Atwell is simply outstanding in both halves but, overall, it’s game over in that high-pressing opening hour with the cast overall far more convincing in their original setting.

Modern role reversal: Ben Allen and Hayley Atwell
You spend your time comparing before and after and whilst Sule Rimi is equally impressive and Matt Barock’s Lucio equally outrageous, the Duke and Frederick are a little lost in time. Isabelle is now the one with the power and I have to say that Atwell is most convincing in either role.

But, even before the trickery, the point is well made and that primal scream was powerful enough to have settled any play.

Overall a very enjoyable production but it was hard to reconcile the duality, however well-intentioned: I don’t feel that the view of the modern half added anything fundamentally dramatic to the story we had already watched.

IThankYouTheatre Rating: ***1/2 Ms Atwell is a player with huge charisma and stage power and I would, literally watch her in anything: she is magnetic.

Oh brother. Sule Rimi