If you’ve ever wondered how the Cenotaph came to be part of the nation’s cultural fabric, look no further than this enjoyably understated, sting-in-the-tail new show from John Burrows as part of the Finborough’s TheGreatWar100 series which certainly acts as a bracing post-war antidote.Writer/director of, amongst other things, 7:84’s One Big Blow (which spawned the 1980s chart-topping acapella group, The Flying Pickets), Burrows has written an infectiously spirited account employing two of the Pickets’ original stalwarts, David Brett and Gareth Williams.
Between them, they play over 20 roles, slipping in and out of male and female characters with the ease that only comes from two old pros with a lifetime of experience behind them. As two shabby-coated, medal boasting buskers – Brett on banjo, Williams on violin – they whisk us from Woolwich to Grosvenor Square, the trenches, post-war Russia and Lloyd George’s cabinet office on a flight of fancy concerning young 18 year old conscript, Percy Cotton and his lady love, Nellie Mottram, Selfridge shop-girl and occasional `medium’ dispensing comfort to the recently bereaved via questionable access to their loved ones killed on the fields of France.
As Percy slowly makes his way through the purgatory of war, Nellie is steadily climbing up through the upper echelons of society.
Brett and Williams have some terrific, even heartfelt moments in a double-act that recalls Pete & Dud with its slow-burn humour, contrasting physical appearances and class differences.
Williams, for example, captures the capricious working class opportunism of Nellie but also provides a convincing range of plummy-voiced Army figures. Brett, the smaller, projects Percy’s artlessness but also the deviousness of Nellie’s sponsor, lover and Lloyd George’s Secretary, Sir Gregory Sleight.
Sometimes the show feels as if an outside eye might have moved things on a bit. But Burrows ultimately makes his points, without fanfare, about the terrible postwar betrayal of those who survived and Lloyd George’s shrewdness in creating a ceremony of national mourning, not just to assuage national grief but also as a buttress against a possible rise of national unrest such as the Bolshevism, then sweeping through Russia. Now that’s clever!
Unassuming show but one with great potential, thanks to its two star performers.
Stony Broke in No Man’s Land runs at the FinboroughTheatre to Jan 26, 2016
First published in Reviewsgate, January 2016