The Christmas Truce – December 2015 (2)

Experience: 9/10

Understudy performance

By Phil Porter

Directed by Jane Moriarty

Venue: RST

Date: Friday 19th December 2014

This was even more enjoyable than yesterday’s performance. We were siting centrally in the front stalls, and had a great view of the action, plus, as it was the understudy run, we had the added benefit of the atmosphere that creates. We came earlier as well, though as it turns out we didn’t miss much yesterday, as the fun only started about fifteen minutes beforehand.

The coconut shy took a little while to get going, so some older audience members were invited up to have a go; one chap hit the coconut out of its stand on the first attempt! Once the younger folk started to arrive, they were given preference, although one youngster proved a bit dangerous to the musicians, his aim was so wild.

When that all wound down, the assistant director came onto the stage and made the usual announcement. This time, with the doubling of understudy roles, we would be seeing the same actor playing both a British and a German solider in the same scene – that promised to be fun. She left the stage and took her seat again, which turned out to be right behind us.

With this understudy run, they didn’t use the principals as stand-ins for their own parts, but those actors not understudying filled in some of the general roles from time to time. As a result there were often fewer people in the crowd scenes, but we found that everything worked just as well as it had yesterday, and with a better view and some familiarity with the story, we enjoyed ourselves even more. I will quickly run through any changes or new information; I may have included one or two details in yesterday’s notes anyway – it gets hard to remember exactly what I saw when with two performances so close together.

The opening batsman was now a leftie, and after hitting the first ball for four, the second clean-bowled him. I spotted the smoke from the flash during the team photo, and the first ball of the second innings, the one that turned into a shell exploding, was hit for six – the umpire raised his arms long before the explosion. (Cricket score – 165 for 7 from 40 overs.)

The recruiting scenes were just as funny, with today’s audience being more responsive than the one last night. It was easier to see the mistakes which Liggins was making this time around during drill practice, and I felt that Peter McGovern (Moth in Love’s Labour’s Lost) was an excellent substitute in this role.

Not that the others were doing anything less than a good job, of course. The huddle before the sham battle practice when they handed out the guns was right beside us in the centre aisle, and some odd sounds during shooting practice – a duck quacking as it was hit, etc. – made it all even funnier. We couldn’t see the nurses at the back so well this time, but that wasn’t a problem.

When they arrived at the front I was aware of the rumbling of artillery in the background, and there were a few female soldiers helping out with the trench-building etc.; I don’t know if this was just for the understudy run or not. The anti-frostbite grease was again offered to a lady in the audience, and I must clarify that this was in connection with the information that help may be required to apply the grease to those hard-to-reach areas – yuck! (49 for 0 off 22)

Peter McGovern was playing two soldiers in the next trenches scene, emerging from behind another actor when Liggins ‘arrived’, which got a laugh. There was more of a mood change this time when Liggins was shot, and again my eyes misted up when the sergeant stayed with Matron during Liggins’ last minutes. The scoreboard – 49 for 1 off 23 – was placed over the previous board as Liggins’ body was lifted off the bed.

A lot of lanterns descended from the ceiling for the concert scene, and this time I noticed the hobby horse, played by Brisker, which frisked around before the start and was looking for sugar lumps from the (on-stage) audience – no luck. We laughed at the Colonel’s jokes, unlike the on-stage audience, and enjoyed the various turns as much as before. There was a good laugh at the “baa”-ing, and I felt the Henry V speech was said a bit more confidently than in yesterday’s version. Matron was again concerned when Clothilde came on to sing, and drew herself away when that lady was escorted off the stage along the walkway where Matron had been seated.

The descriptions of the various missiles were as before, with the swags above the tress coming down more cleanly after the Jack Johnson. The battle scene had a stronger impact viewed from in front (75 for 4 off 27 – the change came early in the scene but I didn’t see when) especially when the nurse came on at the back to sing Ave Maria. She was lit by a spotlight, and with the fog lying over the stage she appeared to be suspended in mid-air. I could see that the fog rolled in over the mounds at the back, but that didn’t take away from the effect.

The trees separated as the other nurses came on to join in the song, and the soldiers rose up to creep back to their trenches under cover of the fog. There was a roll call, during which we learned of the additional deaths, and I found it very moving (sniffles). As this was the interval, I took the opportunity to turn round and thank the assistant director for doing such a good job, and I wasn’t the only one.

The scoreboard was changed during the break to show 88 for 4 off 32. They restarted, and this time I could read the sign when Alf held it up (HAPPY CHRISMAS FRITZ. HAVE A BLINKIN SOSSAGE). There were stars above when the Germans sang Stille Nacht and a greater sense of uncertainty when Old Bill went over the top to meet with the Germans. The ladders that formed the wall of the trench blocked our view a bit from this angle, but we could still enjoy the comedy of the meeting,

I noticed a Welsh accent from at least one soldier during the Christmas decorations scene in the hospital, and one of the nurses turned into Matron to complete the scene. (98 for 4 off 33.) Having seen the play yesterday, I was immediately aware of Bairnsfather avoiding Kohler’s offer of a handshake today; yesterday I could only see Bairnsfather’s back. After the dead were buried – I was more aware of the mixing of the German and English words this time – Oliver Lynes took off his German great coat and became Harris for his moving speech. He was still in his German uniform though, and perhaps that was why I was even more moved than yesterday’s version (sniffles).

The football match went ahead, and this time Smith was talking to himself. With the same actor playing both Smith and Schmidt, the scene was even funnier, and there was a huge laugh on the line about having a conversation with another intelligent human being, as well as a round of applause at the end. A high ball came in – from the balcony? – bringing the game back onto the stage (198 for 4 off 33).

I was aware that we were getting a chance to see another side of the stiff, prim Matron when she danced with Bert. When the first shot was fired to signal the end of the truce, there were gasps from the audience – they may not have expected it to be so loud. The mix of carols started up, and I noticed that Clothilde was sitting on the front steps for this final bit – does that mean she was a real character after all? It was another great performance, and we applauded long and loud for this talented and hard-working cast. (And thanked the director again on the way out.)

© 2014 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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