Sunday, 31 May 2015

Theatre review: Stony Broke in No Man’s Land

Many theatres took time in 2014 to mark the 100th anniversary of the First World War beginning, but the Finborough's THEGREATWAR100 is an occasional series of programming due to keep returning until the centenary of its end. It means that in a few years' time we're sure to get a return of the theme as theatres mark the Armistice and the way the dead were memorialised, but the Finborough's current season steals a march on them as far as the latter subject goes: The main show took us to Australia for ANZAC Day, and the Sunday-Tuesday rep show brings us closer to home for John Burrows' Stony Broke in No Man's Land. David Brett and Gareth Williams play two old buskers who, some years after returning from the front, look back at the promises that the survivors' old jobs would be waiting for them, and the reality that saw them feel their sacrifice had been swiftly forgotten.

There follows a simple but accomplished piece of storytelling theatre as the two men tell the story of an ordinary Tommy, Percy Cotton, one of the first to be conscripted once the volunteers all died out, and who saw a lot of action but, through injury, illness and chance, kept out of the direct line of fire for most of the war.

Meanwhile Nellie, the girl he left behind, finds a profitable but morally dubious new job back in London - expanding her job as a fortune-teller, she announces herself as a psychic who comforts the grieving with messages from the loved ones killed in France. Soon she's living the high life, dumping her fiancé to become the mistress of a wealthy adviser to Lloyd George. Her lies and betrayals come back to betray her in the end, but along the way she inadvertently creates a piece of history.

Punctuated very occasionally by songs of the time on violin and banjo, the story moves smoothly between comedy, tragedy and ghost story, as the performers build a cast of characters, given life believably but not showily, none of whom will end up unaffected by the war. Done right, pared-back storytelling theatre can be very effective, and Brett and Williams are masters at it. Burrows' story turns out to be building up to the story of the Cenotaph, and the state funeral of the Unknown Warrior. Stony Broke in No Man's Land makes no secret of its view that this was largely a propaganda exercise, a public display of gratitude to the ex-soldiers to distract them from the broken promises they found on their return. But it also reveals it as, whatever the real reasons behind it, exactly the right thing to do. It means that even with its motives exposed as spurious, the play's description of the funeral is a powerfully moving scene. It's a pleasure to see something done so simply and so well, by a writer and cast who seem to care about every moment of the story.

Stony Broke in No Man's Land by John Burrows is booking in repertory until the 9th of June at the Finborough Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes including interval.

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