By Phil Porter
Directed by Erica Whyman
Date: Thursday 15th January 2015
We enjoyed this production so much when we saw it before Christmas last year that we decided to fit in another viewing, so here we are. Again we sat in the centre front stalls, the same seats as for the understudy run, so no complaints about our view. One young lad did a ‘wiggle’ dance to celebrate his success at the coconut shy, but otherwise the standard was pretty poor – Chris had to use his foot on one occasion or we’d have still been sitting there now waiting for the start!
I haven’t mentioned in previous notes that Bairnsfather’s raffle picture was on display at the back, and I noticed that the same lady won the prize in all three performances – I suspect the draw may be rigged. Liggins came for his recruitment interview with an exaggerated marching movement – don’t remember if that was the case in our first viewing – and he was doing the same thing during drill practice. I noted down some of the noises during the shooting practice – a dog barking, a window breaking and also the duck quacking. The soldiers play-acted fake deaths, and as their bodies lay on the ground, the nurses at the back read out casualty figures for some of the early battles. When the sergeant came on to supervise the grenade throwing practice, he walked past the musicians on the right who were playing some incidental music at the time. He bellowed “shut up” at them, which they did, so that he could train his men in relative peace and quiet; I think that was new.
The train to the front lines arrived in the station just as they started the chorus of their song, so that covered a lot of the set changing that went on. In a later trench scene, Clover was sleeping in the centre aisle, leaning up against the front steps during the early section. He leapt up when his letter arrived, though given the contents he’d have been better to carry on sleeping.
Before the concert got going, the band played The Galloping Major, and this was when the hobby-horse was prancing around the stage. In the text, The Galloping Major is one of the turns they do, but presumably it didn’t work for some reason so they changed it to a short preamble instead – one of the ways that productions change from the published text, especially with a new play. There was only a short burst of yodelling tonight – I’m sure it was longer last time – and Smith started his Black Sheep song before putting the socks on his hands, which I think is another change. Matron definitely didn’t applaud Clothilde tonight, though Steve and I are none the wiser as to Colthilde’s real identity.
When the soldiers stood up after Lesson 2, the nurses came on and turned their chairs over; this wasn’t a change, I just misremembered it for my first set of notes. The men then left the stage to get their rum and the nurses left too. The soldiers formed up right beside us again in the centre aisle before making their attack, so we felt we were right in the thick of it. The deaths were clearer this time round, and while Brisker did the bowling action when he left the stage, Clover and Yallop, the other two casualties, just left the stage as far as I could see.
In the second half, there was an Indian soldier in one of the hospital beds – Chris Nayak with a moustache – instead of the Welsh one in the understudies run, and two of the (rather tipsy) nurses did a silly little dance to I Saw Three Ships which was very funny. It was easier to see Bairnsfather’s discomfort at being invited to shake Kohler’s hand this time around; he avoided the situation by putting lots of sugar in his coffee. Riley was doing some warm-up movements as he explained the rules of rugby, and wandered off after the first goal was scored in the football match. Later, when Bairnsfather fell down, he wouldn’t accept the German officer’s offer of a hand to help him get up. When Old Bill came on with his sausage and beer, I was amazed. The sausage was enormous! Much bigger than last time.
Back at the hospital, Bert and Matron danced to In The Shade Of The Old Apple Tree, and this carried through to the soldiers in the trenches as well. At the end, Harris, Tallis and Alf all bowled their way off the stage, leaving Bairnsfather, Clover, Smith, Old Bill and Bert as the remaining soldiers, huddled in the middle of the stage and ‘celebrating’ their survival.
It was lovely to see this again, and to see how the performances had come on. I had a much better sense this time of just how amazing it was to have that brief spell of peace and communion with total strangers in the midst of a war. I do hope this play is revived, as it has a lot to teach us and remind us, and I would certainly love to see it done again.
© 2015 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me