The Christmas Truce – December 2014

Experience: 8/10

By Phil Porter

Directed by Erica Whyman

Venue: RST

Date: Thursday 18th December 2014

We were in a bit of a rush getting to this performance; slow service at the restaurant meant we took our seats just after 7 p.m., and since there was pre-show entertainment, we will be sure to get in earlier next time. The village fete was already under way, with a couple of the cast on stage in Edwardian costume, bringing young children up from the audience to have a go at the coconut shy. There was applause when they succeeded – even when Chris Nayak helped out one young lad by knocking the coconut stand over – and Steve spotted that the youngsters were given something by the lady before they left the stage, possibly a voucher for an ice cream?

The musicians turned up soon after we arrived – a fiddle and a squeeze-box – and the rest of the cast drifted on gradually over the next ten minutes. I’ll take this opportunity to describe the set, including the bits that appeared later when the fete was dismantled. There were tree trunks at the very back of the stage rising out of green mounds. Leafless, they had a few twigs for branches, although some were reduced to posts. Large swags of green material hung above the trees. A large piece of red and cream striped cloth, secured by a ladder at each end, was placed across most of the stage as the backing for the coconut shy. Behind this on each side, slightly hidden by the cloth, were wooden chairs and a table. In front of the cloth were five coconuts in wooden stands and between cloth and stands were several bales of straw. Another ladder stood front left, and on this was placed the box which contained the soft beanbag balls which the kids were throwing at the coconuts. One of the tables at the back held a tombola, and around the stalls there were long stretches of red, white and blue bunting, hung just underneath the balcony, with another strip over the large cloth and down the sides of the ladders. The musicians, dressed as soldiers or nurses, were located under the pizza slices (end balconies) on either side of the stage, and over the right balcony hung a cricket scoreboard.

As the cast assembled, they took turns at the coconut shy themselves, first the ladies and then the men. We were beside the right walkway tonight, so missed some of the action, but we were in prime position when one chap came over carrying a mandolin and asked the young lady behind us to hold it for him.

The coconut shy was cleared away while some of the men began throwing a beanbag ball to each other; this included a couple of chaps in the balcony. One of the throws up there was missed – oops – and it was all good fun. Then the match began. The first batsman arrived and took guard on middle stump; the umpire helped him out with his position, standing at the front of the stage while the batsman was about half-way back, facing the umpire. The bowling was mimed by the young men, who ran past the umpire, bowled, and then rushed off stage. The scoreboard was changed to reflect the score, and then the innings was over and they stopped for tea. The umpire took back his mandolin, there was a team song, and then they all posed for a team picture.

Further entertainment was provided by the vicar, who welcomed one and all and then supervised the drawing of a ticket to win a painting by Bruce Bairnsfather. Bruce himself actually drew the ticket out, and presented the prize to the lucky winner. Around this time I spotted that there were a couple of men in uniform at the back of the group. The vicar rounded off the tea break with a bit of John of Gaunt’s ”This England” speech from Richard II, and then it was the opposition’s turn to bat. The sound of a ball flying into the distance segued into the sound of a shell flying overhead and ended in an explosion. The young men ran off the stage after each delivering a ball in the game, and the rest of the trimmings for the fete were removed, including the bunting under the balcony.

While some of the young men queued up to be seen by the recruiting sergeant to the right of the stage, Bruce Bairnsfather was being interviewed at the back by an officer. There was one lovely line – when Bruce was asked what his eyes were like he replied “Rather fetching, people say” – which gave us an early laugh. Having been set the task of drawing a picture of the officer (so he could give it to his wife while he was away in Belgium), the action shifted to the recruitment of Stanley Liggins, one of life’s unfortunates. His revelation that he was joining up because his mother wanted him out of the house came as no surprise to the sergeant. Meanwhile a young woman, Phoebe, had arrived front left to speak to a sister about joining the medical service (the QAIMNS). From here on, the scenes alternated between the soldiers and the nurses with quite a bit of overlapping, especially when young Liggins was sent to the hospital.

But first he had to learn his drill. Along with the rest of the new recruits, he went through some drill practice; his inability to tell his left from his right led to some entertaining variations on the general choreography. With the nurses occupying tables at the back of the stage, doing unspecified paperwork, the soldiers did some shooting practice and sham battles – I think this was where they all had a go at lobbing a grenade (beanbag ball) over a makeshift barricade, and they landed so close the lads would have been mincemeat if they’d been real grenades.

The scene was quickly changed after this. A line of pallets was laid diagonally across the stage and, with the help of a crate or two, became a troop train. The men stood there talking about nothing much, and soon got into an argument. The younger men were showing little respect for the old-timers, and to settle things down Bairnsfather, who had been sketching near the front of the carriage, suggested a sing-along. They found a suitable compromise between the first suggestions of a bawdy number or a hymn – Fall In And Follow Me – and as the song ended, the train was cleared away and the bits used to create a ramshackle wall at the back of the stage; this represented the side of a trench. Folding beds were used a lot in this production, and some were laid upside-down on top of the barricade; the legs stuck up like a hedgehog’s spikes and suggested barbed wire – very effective.

The train station was indicated by the use of smoke, and I noticed that the mounds underneath the trees were now grey-coloured. The men had arrived in Flanders and were given their orientation by Sergeant Yallop. Captain Riley also came along to welcome the men. Liggins turned up late – he’d lost a boot in the mud – and the officers were soon off to a dugout while the men gave us “Trenches Survival: Lesson One”. This covered how to stay healthy, warm and dry: “It is not possible to stay healthy, warm or dry”. Anti-frostbite grease was available but, judging by the nasty smell, not a lot of fun, although the lady in the audience whom the solider offered it to didn’t seem to mind. The rations seemed ideal for a weight-loss regimen.

A brief spell of night-time sentry duty showed us Old Bill being kind to young Liggins, and then the matron met with her two new recruits, Phoebe and Maud, to welcome them to the nursing station; a curtain with a big red cross on it dropped down at this point to separate off the front of the stage. Lieutenant Colonel Wymark, the Chief Surgeon, was also there, and found he knew Maud’s grandfather; all very chummy. He left, and Matron continued her induction of the new girls. While Maud seemed to be fitting in very well, Phoebe had made the mistake of wearing her summer cape instead of the regulation winter one – it just wouldn’t do! Incidentally, the text shows some extra dialogue at the beginning of this scene where Maud and Phoebe read out the regulations from a booklet with another member of staff; interesting stuff in its own way, but perhaps they were wise to drop it. They certainly got across the sense of strictness and regimentation perfectly well in the bits they included.

Back at the soldiers’ trench billet (curtain up so we could see it) things had moved on. We heard about Old Bill’s longing for strawberry jam (he only had plum and apple), Bairnsfather was doing a little sketching, more soldiers turned up and one was given a haircut, and we learned about young Harris and his cricket score for the war. Each day was one over, anything good that happened was a run, while any injury (or worse) was a wicket. So far the score was 49 for 0 off 22 overs. I realised that this was being shown on the scoreboard over the balcony railing as well, so I started paying attention to it – I’ll update the score as I go along.

Clover received a letter from his girlfriend, and the others encouraged him to read it out loud. It began “Dear Ernest” and didn’t end well. After a few comments about Bairnsfather’s sketch of Old Bill – “When The ‘Ell’s It Going To Be Strawberry?” – the German troops, obviously just as bored as the British, suggested a target-shooting competition. They held up a target and Harris had a go – bull’s-eye. The Tommies found a can to hold up on the end of a shovel, and the German soldier hit that cleanly too – one all. Then Smith, the perpetual grouch, had a go and missed, followed by a German miss, so still one all. Liggins took the next turn, and against all expectations actually hit the target! There was much celebration in the British trench, and someone mentioned that Liggins had got himself a woman now, a farmer’s daughter. They teased him mercilessly, and Liggins ended up, without his helmet, on one of the ladders with his back to the Germans. A shot rang out, and Liggins was down. It was a bit predictable, but moving nonetheless.

He was taken immediately to the hospital – curtain down, bed out. There was a very moving scene where the doctor pronounced the wound inoperable, and the matron, apparently stiff and unbending, sent Phoebe away when she wanted to sit with Liggins, whom she knew. Matron was quite right; Phoebe was too emotional and needed to get away from that situation. Matron herself sat with Liggins till the end, accompanied by Bert, one of the elder soldiers in the troop. He realised how much the nurses had to endure in the hospitals and told her that she had his respect. Those were my first tears of the night.

Liggins didn’t last long – 53 for 1 from 22 – and as the soldiers carried his body away, the nurses cleared the bed and the curtain rose. Liggins’ body was placed on a diagonal of the stage with the men lined up on either side. Our God, Our Help In Ages Past was sung, and as it ended, Liggins rose up and ran off in a shaft of light, bowling a delivery as he reached the end of the stage.

The Colonel came on when this was over, and Bairnsfather suggested that a good way to raise the men’s spirits would be a concert party. The Colonel agreed. Bairnsfather left to organise it, and as the stage was being set up for the concert, the Colonel found himself rather in the way. He’d told Bairnsfather that he didn’t want to be involved in the performance – “don’t expect to get me up on stage” – but as he moved out of the way of various enthusiastic soldiers who were setting up chairs around the main stage, he found himself up on the concert stage just as the steps were taken away. With the arrival of the nurses and Matron, the concert could start, and the Colonel was in prime position to do his warm-up act.

Perhaps stand-up wasn’t the best choice he could have made. His stiff and awkward delivery would have been excruciating if it had been for real, but in these circumstances I found his jokes rather funny. The soldiers didn’t though, and he left the stage to Second Lieutenant Brunhilde von Bairnsfather. Brunhilde (or Bruce as I’ll start calling him – far fewer letters to type) was dressed in a German helmet, a blond wig and a great coat. He began a song about having come over to the British side of the front line, and at an appropriate moment took off the coat and helmet to reveal… Britannia! His song turned into a lively introduction to the show, and he was joined by the rest of the section to complete it. The overall effect was a bit ropey, but totally fitting for the situation they were in.

Next up was Brisker, the Scottish member of the group. He wore a kilt over his trousers, and did a jaunty little number which involved a lot of kilt-swishing; this was well received. He was followed by Clover who did some yodelling. The best item came next, and strangely enough it was Smith, the permanent pessimist, who provided the most laughs. Tall and gangly, he put black socks on his hands and rested his elbows on a bale of hay which had been placed at the front of the concert stage. He started off by speaking the lines, and then broke into song for “I’m the black sheep of the family”. He waved his feet from time to time – these were in black boots, I think – and the whole thing was done with such a deadpan delivery that it was very funny.

Tallis came on stage and played Frere Jacque on enamel mugs. He then attempted to do some smutty limericks, but Bruce cut him short. Alf came on holding a sword and began, rather hesitantly, to do the “Once more unto the breach” speech from Henry V. He got stronger as he went on, and I could see how this sort of thing would be helpful to soldiers in these situations.

Bruce introduced a special guest star at this point, a young French lady who was going to sing for them. I noticed that Matron in particular wasn’t happy about this – loose (and attractive) young women fraternising with the men! – but the men seemed to enjoy this visitation. [In case I don’t get round to doing my notes for the second performance we saw, I will mention here that Clothilde, the French singer, was played by the same actress who played one of the nurses, Maud. It’s not clear from the text or the cast list whether this was an intentional subterfuge on either Bruce or Maud’s part, but it may explain why Matron was so unhappy.] The young lady sang beautifully, accompanied by Captain Riley on the guitar, and was rapturously applauded by the soldiers when she finished (wasn’t looking at Matron at this point). Riley and Bruce concluded the show with a husband and wife number which turned out to be I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside. Almost everyone joined in this one, including the ‘real’ audience, although the younger folk didn’t seem to know the song.

As the concert party and on-stage audience left the stage, the chairs were tuned round, and the Colonel had a short conversation with Bruce and Riley. The Colonel’s main concern was his own performance, of course, and the other two were quick to reassure him that he had gone down really well. The strange effect of not being able to hear the laughter from the stage was commented on (by the Colonel), and then came the bad news. To give the French some support, the Warwickshire regiment would be making an attack the following day. Bruce and Riley raised some objections, but the order had been given and that was that.

“Trenches Survival, Lesson Two: Ways to get killed and the avoidance thereof” took us through the various sound effects of German missiles. The final shell, a Jack Johnson, was so huge it brought down most of the green swags above the trees. The soldiers had been preparing themselves for the upcoming attack as they went through this information, and now they stood up, turned their chairs over and took their final ration of rum before the off. They crouched in the central aisle in front of the stage waiting for the whistle, and the British shells lit up the rear of the stage while smoke poured onto it. When they did attack, it was chaos and confusion. Shells were bursting everywhere, and the soldiers were on the ground. They described the ‘battle’, and it turned out they weren’t able to get very far; they spent the night huddled in shallow pits in the ground, unable to get back to their trenches and unable to continue the attack. Only the blessing of a fog at dawn allowed them to get back to their “rat-ridden, water-sodden pit”. This final section was heralded by one of the nurses, Phoebe I think, standing at the back of the stage and singing Ave Maria. She had a clear, high voice, and it sounded incredibly beautiful. The other nurses came on stage and joined in the singing while the men recounted their lucky escape. It seemed that three more were dead, however, and the remaining six from the village fete stayed together in the middle of the stage till the end. “Lesson Three: BE LUCKY”. Interval.

So much went on during that fight scene that it was hard to take it all in. The trees at the back were now mostly missing their top halves; only one ‘complete’ tree remained in the midst of the devastation, and it was just a skeleton. The rest of the swags were removed during the interval, and the scoreboard was changed to reflect the current situation – 88 runs for 4 wickets off 32 overs.

The stage was set up for the restart with two ladders near the front of the stage, guns lying beside them, and two of the folding beds upside down back left and right, like spiky bridges. The soldiers came on in the darkness and lay or sat around the ladders. I could hear the harmonica being played – In The Bleak Midwinter – but the player couldn’t get the tune right and kept restarting, until finally one of the other soldiers told him to pack it in (or words to that effect).

A parcel delivery turned up, and most of the men received something. Tallis, the harmonica player, was sure that something would have come for him, but he drew a blank. There was a sad reminder of the casualties when a parcel had come for someone who had died, but it turned out that only two bought it during the attack; Clover was in hospital, and Tallis took his parcel to give to him later. When the gifts were opened, Smith had a football – rotten luck, as he didn’t like the game – Alf had some mittens and a very loving letter from his wife – he read it out to everyone – Harris got a prayer book and Old Bill’s parcel contained a bag of walnuts, some no longer edible cheese and a letter from his wife, whose writing style differed markedly from that of Mrs Alf. Her fond PS consisted of “Don’t get shot”.

The officers turned up with some Christmas cheer – a bottle of wine which they shared round the men. Alf had been painting a sign at the start, and he showed it to the men at this point – we couldn’t see it because of our angle, but it read “HAPPY CHRISMAS FRITZ. HAVE A BLINKIN SOSSAGE”. When Bruce went to hang it from one of the ladders, he noticed a lot of lights over by the German trenches – Christmas trees. From the distance they could just hear singing, and when they fell silent, it became clearer: Silent Night (in German of course). After two verses the Brits applauded, and then tried to find a carol to sing themselves in return. Tallis’ first offering, an advertiser’s version of Hark, The Herald Angels Sing, was rejected, and instead someone started up God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen and the rest joined in. They weren’t too good on the words, mind you, having to hum their way through “To save us all from…” until they remembered the words again. Even so, they got applause from the Germans.

It was after this that the German voice came across no-man’s-land offering to meet them half way and not shoot. Some of the Tommies thought it might be a trick, but the officers thought that the offer might be genuine and finally Old Bill volunteered to take the risk. The German had offered some gifts by this time, including German cigars, so they found some items for Bill to take with him – cigarettes, a tin of bully beef and another of plum and apple jam. Old Bill hoped to find something better over there to swap it for.

As Bill climbed one of the ladders, the others held it steady for him, and once over the top the lighting changed to show the middle ground while the rest of his troop melted away into the darkness. When the Germans came out of their trenches and down the slopes at the back, there were three of them, and one was holding a gun. Their leader sent him back and then he offered Bill some schnapps. Gradually they got to know one another and developed the beginnings of a mutual trust. The Germans weren’t too impressed with the bully beef (didn’t stop them taking it, mind) but the conversation about the plum and apple jam was hilarious. When told that it was a tin of jam, the second German asked the first if it was strawberry. Clearly he and Old Bill had a lot in common. When the first German told him it was plum and apple, he groaned, and we laughed. There was more humour in the way they negotiated this strange relationship, and then Bill went back to his trench to let his side know what happened.

Again the lighting changed, and the other soldiers came back on to hear his story. The Germans started singing O Tannenbaum and the English soldiers gradually joined in, producing a lovely mixture of the German and English lyrics. During this, the ladders and other items for the trench were removed and a hospital ward set up. The nurses were also singing Oh Christmas Tree as they set about putting up Christmas decorations from the ceiling lights. There were several men in the beds – handy to have some dead soldiers to supply extra characters.

One of the men woke up while they were doing this, and wanted to join in the fun. He started up I Saw Three Ships and the nurses joined in, so loudly that they woke up Matron. Malvolio-like, she came in to put an end to these shenanigans, and despite Phoebe putting up some stiff resistance, Matron won out. Her speech about the importance of obeying the rules, and how even minor infringements were a threat to the Empire, made her seem terribly stiff and pompous. She got her way and the decorations were taken down.

In fact the whole ward was removed and the stage cleared for the next no-man’s-land scene. A German officer – not the same one who come out earlier – came forward from their trenches with his hands up, asking to speak to a British officer. Eventually Riley and Bruce came down the centre aisle and onto the stage, also with hands held up. The German officer, Kohler, offered them coffee, and there was a humorous interlude while he relayed their answer back to his trench, only to be asked if they wanted milk. He relayed this question, and their answer, and then came the question, do they want sugar? This was much funnier than it looks on paper, their timing was excellent. Finally Kohler told his man to bring everything, and then he and the British officers negotiated a two-day truce. Bodies needed to be exchanged and buried, and the men could have some respite from the fighting.

Coffee was served, and then the rest of the men came out. Things were a little tense at first, but then Alf stepped forward and introduced himself. One of the Germans came forward too – Franz – and they shook hands. Immediately things became more relaxed. The men were mingling happily when Bruce told them it was time to bury the dead. This led into a beautifully emotive piece of movement work where the men stood around the stage and spoke of how they took the dead bodies up and placed them in holes which they’d dug. The lines were said in both English and German, and there were paired movements suggestive of the effort required to lift these bodies out of the frozen mud. Once this was done, Harris asked if he could speak a few words. A church warden back in Warwickshire, he’d been reluctant to speak earlier when Liggins was buried, but now he stood on a small box and gave a moving speech about things he’d learned from the war.

Another bilingual hymn – O Come All Ye Faithful – and another group photo was followed by Captain Riley suggesting a game of rugby. He’d taken Smith’s football, and placed it on the ground while he explained the rules, completely ignoring any requests that they play football instead. Bruce stepped in to broker a change of sport, and everyone except the Captain was relieved when he was successful.

The goals were soon set up – the British one was at the back of the stage – and as the Brits stood around trying to persuade Bruce to play, the Germans stole a quick goal. Ever the diplomat, Bruce suggested they were only giving the Germans a sporting chance, but I noticed he no longer had any reluctance to join in. Smith, on the other hand, was left in goal, and he was anything but pleased to be involved. With the game down the far end of the pitch (off stage) he struck up a conversation with the German soldier standing near him, and for once he found a fellow pessimist to talk with. The German described the truce, his trench and the food in terms which were very familiar to Smith, and when he introduced himself we weren’t too surprised when the German’s name turned out to be Schmidt! It was another funny scene.

A second German goal (runs 98, wickets 4, overs 33) was followed by another haircut. Bert was doing the hair of one of the Germans, while Old Bill came on with a bottle in one hand and a large sausage on a fork in the other. He’d clearly been raiding the German trenches while they were off playing football. The German showed them a picture of his wife, and after talking about Christmas being a time for families, Bert told Bill to take over doing the haircut as he had something to do. There was more humour as Bill gave his sausage to the German to hold – had to warn him off eating it – and as he started on the cut his first question was “Going anywhere nice on your holidays?” – very funny.

This being a game of football, there was the obligatory dive and claim for a penalty – this one was made by the Germans. The comment by Tallis that this kind of play-acting was ruining the modern game got the expected laugh, as did a line about the Germans being useless at taking penalties. Ever diplomatic, Bruce smoothed things over by allowing the penalty – three-nil.

Back at the hospital, matron and Phoebe were having their own ‘truce’ moment. They found a way to accommodate each other’s point of view, and with permission to roll her eyes every other Wednesday, Phoebe was happy with the deal. Bert turned up after Phoebe left, and despite Matron being as prickly as she could, he persisted in his attempts to become friendly with her, and eventually she was persuaded to dance with him. The patients, led by Clover, supplied the music, and as they waltzed across the floor the curtain lifted and their dance segued into the celebrations at the trenches (198 for 4 off 33).

When the dancing stopped, the Germans wanted some entertainment from the Brits. Smithy refused to do his Black Sheep routine, so someone suggested that Bruce do a drawing for them. He ended up sketching Kohler, but from verbal descriptions by his soldiers rather than from life. The result amused everyone – we didn’t get to see it – and then Kohler changed the tone by asking Bruce why he (Bruce) wouldn’t shake hands with him (Kohler). Bruce had to admit to his misgivings; German soldiers had killed some of his men, and the war itself had been started by Germany. Kohler finally had a chance to put the German perspective in front of us. He pointed out that German soldiers had been killed by Bruce’s men as well, and then went into a lengthy description of how vulnerable Germans felt when two nations such as France and Russia, no friends to Germany, formed a pact. On an island, there are no problems with the neighbours, but on the continent, nothing is secure. It was a valid point, and one I hadn’t been aware of before.

This sharing of experiences did the trick, and Bruce realised that they weren’t so different after all. He shook Kohler’s hand, and almost immediately the order came to report to the Colonel. Captain Riley was there as well, and as Bruce had suspected the higher ranks wanted the truce stopped. As Bruce was popular, the Colonel wanted him to tell the men, and although it meant going back on their word to leave off fighting for two days, Bruce finally agreed.

Returning to the trenches, Bruce met with Kohler, who presented him with a copy of the group photograph they had taken the previous day. Both men knew what had to be done – presumably the Germans had had their orders as well – and with the firing of a few warning shots, the truce was over. Two lines of soldiers swapped over, heading back to their own trenches, and then the remnants of the group we’d been following sat in the middle of the stage and passed a few comments about having survived another year. To the combined sounds of several carols – Silent Night, O Little Town Of Bethlehem and Ding Dong, Merrily On High – the rest of the cast swirled around the seated men, snow fell over some parts of the stage, and Bert and the Matron danced through the swathe of people. Three explosions were heard, and three of the remaining men left the stage, at least one of them doing the bowling action; I assumed this meant they also died during the war. As the final chords of Silent Night faded away, the cast stood or sat around the stage and the lights went down. Marvellous. And we get to do it all again tomorrow with the understudy run.

© 2014 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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