Edinburgh Fringe 2013
"Jamie and his mother Ruth, are clearing out the attic of her vintage shop when they discover the diary and photographs of his namesake, his great-grandfather James. Ruth is shocked to discover that her grandfather has included details of not only her grandmother, but another nameless soldier, a lover. Transported between 1916 and the present, by several songs of the era and a minimalist telling of the tale, this four-hander explores the complicated nature of relationships forged under fire, and the harsh reality of war – where all is certainly far from fair…"
We enter to find storage boxes scattered around the stage. The feel is of an attic. Bil Rose as Ruth and Richard Hills-Ingyon as Jamie, her son, enter and begin sorting through the contents. They are very much of our time. Hills-Ingyon is in a hoodie and trackie bottoms. The pace is measured. A steady beat gradually rising, playing on our anticipation. The dialogue is smart yet slightly stiff. Jamie is trying to be polite. He has done this before we collect. Rummaging through rubbish for the sake of his dear auld mum and her second-hand shop. He digs down through layers of objet d’ross until he turns up something magical.
It’s not an enchanted ring or a treasure map – rather a key to the past. A diary and photo album. Windows into the lives of his great-grandparents who met on the Western Front. Ruth recounts that her grandmother Nora was doing her bit as a nurse when she met and fell in love with the man who was to be Jamie’s namesake. Ruth sits down to read the diary from cover to cover and in doing so uncovers a secret relationship. While her grandfather James was playing up! playing up! and playing the game! out on the pitch for England it turns out he was also batting for the other side. He had fallen deeply in love with another officer and this love was returned in passionate full. The scene is shifted to the trenches of 1916. The stage is set for a memorable hour of romance without schmaltz, tragedy without melodrama, life without normality.
Gaelle Stark-Ordish’s script is bold and unadorned, doing for WWI with a pen, or iMac possibly, what John Singer Sargent did for the conflict in oils. Her battleplan is well serviced by a balanced and capable ensemble. There is regimentation, no bad blocking or crossed lines, but also a fluidity which smartly transports the action from front, to billet, from hospital ward to Paris. At first I struggled to understand why Rose as 21st century Ruth remained on stage throughout. Very Beckett but what was the point? To inflict another cricketing metaphor for a moment – Rose was the third man. Placed downstage right she saw relatively little fielding action but when needed she was on hand to receive the long balls (the sharper scene changes) and to accurately return the play, pacily covering the distance. Even so, she needs to be shifted towards fine leg (up stage) since too much of her performance is lost for those of us sitting higher up in the off-side stand.
A respectful play has been given due ceremony without inducing an artificial pathos. The love story, or rather stories, are real and animated. The relationship between Lieutenant James and Second-Lieutenant Robert (played ever so hesitantly by Samuel Morgan) is affectionate and honest (they are still holding hands after the show is long over). A nothing-to-write-home-about approach set in a time when such things couldn’t be written home about.
It was Robert who introduced James to his future bride. Kayleigh Hawkins’ portrait of Nora is crisp, soulful and actually pretty sexy. The nurse’s uniform helps – although it could do with an iron. No, I’m not accepting the cast’s subsequent explanation that the crinkles represent the character’s long hours of ward rounds, unless Nora is supposed to have spent the war crumpled at the bottom of a bag under a diminishing pile of Fringe flyers. Hawkin’s voice is magical. Her rendering of period tunes is flawless perfection – rather like the songbird Richard Thomas attempts to sketch at the end of the 1979 adaptation of All Quiet on the Western Front before redecorating the side of his trench with an interesting new colour called ‘hint of brain’.
This is a young company and at times it shows up in their earnest approach to the subject. Even so the glittering glimpses we catch of the bright young things depicted in Stark-Ordish’s script make this a good call for anyone seeking a well-structured, well-articulated all-round performance. There are some bounces on the way to the boundary but the ball crosses with style.