Finborough Theatre, London (****)
The testimonies and tributes to the fallen keep coming as we reach the half way mark of the centenary marking the Great War – 1914-18.
Each one carves out another little bit of forgotten history, remembers lives cut short, none more poignantly than here in Neil McPherson’s fine resurrection of Scottish poet Charles Hamilton Sorley.
Killed at the Battle of Loos in 1915 when only 20, his death was soon being mourned by Poet Laureate, John Masefield and Robert Graves alongside those of Wilfred Owen and Isaac Rosenberg.
But what comes over in McPherson’s beautifully woven tapestry of texts from his letters, songs of the period and his poetry (from which the title is taken) is not just the precocious talent but the picture of a generous spirit, a Germanophile and an instinctive humanist.
It’s a story we might never have known had it not been for the determination of Sorley’s suffragette disposed mother who, on his death urged her intensely private husband to publish their son’s letters and poems.
This then is a story of the battle to be remembered. Plaudits to Neil McPherson for bringing him back into public view and to Max Key’s skilled production which captures the exuberance of Charles and the intense privacy of the age.
A rebel from the start, an early poem, `Come and see, it’s such a sight’ nails public school conformity with brilliant wit and brevity. As well as his love of German culture – he was studying in Germany when War broke out – it was his affinity with the `common man’ that came to a terrible flowering under the pressure of life in the trenches.
Gloriously caught by Alexander Knox, bright eyed with the joy of life, Key injects background newsreel clips amidst the lieder songs, giving a quality of ghosts to soldiers marching through the muddied landscape.
Stand-in Paul Curievici, pure of voice, makes a marvellous last minute deputy for the indisposed scheduled singer.
But as Sorley’s schoolboy chums are steadily mown down and with them his own, once again the bitter waste of men so young – 19, 20, 23 – is brought home with a cruel but tender pathos.
It Is Easy To Be Dead runs at the Finborough Theatre to July 9, 2016
Review first published in Reviewsgate,