Writer: Emma Gibson and Rob Johnston
Director: Benedict Power
Reviewer: Katherine Kirwin
In this, the centenary year since the outbreak of WW1 it was an apt starting point for a theatrical collaboration between You Are Here Festival (Canberra, Australia) represented by writer Emma Gibson (Australian) and 24/7 Theatre Festival (Manchester, UK) represented by writer Rob Johnston (UK). War Stories is a tale of two halves; a tale of two people in one war spanning many countries and encompassing many lost stories including their own. Elsie (Emily Spowage) is an Australian nurse signing up in 1914 because as a woman she cannot fight for her country like her brothers but as a nurse she can save lives rather than take them. By 1916 she is working in a hospital caring for an English journalist-cum-soldier, Bernard played by Joel Parry, who has lost his memory and is trying to piece the fragments together.
The plot of this play jumps between 1914-1915 and 1916 showing us flashes of Elsie’s future and her past, as we come to understand how she has changed and what impact the war has had. We learn this through a series of fantastic monologues by Spowage as Elsie. At the outset, Elsie is optimistic about traveling and nursing, combined with a steely determinism and mindset. Her monologues are brisk, perky and sometimes comical. We are instantly drawn to her and Gibson’s writing should be commended as the audience finds themselves forgetting they are listening to a monologue of past events, but immerses themselves in the memories and stories.
Spowage gives a skilled performance, sustaining for the most part a convincing Australian accent, as she takes us on a journey of personal growth, love and loss throughout the first two years of WW1. Her heartbreak feels real to us as we have travelled there with her, and even more so for the fact that she masters her tears and throws herself back into her work. Gibson has found humour as well as depth of emotion in the stories she has captured in the character of Elsie, and it is a clever trick to re-tell the opening story at the end, demonstrating the extent of the change in Elsie’s personality and the resonance that each of the words and their memories now holds for her and for us.
Interspersed with Elsie’s story is her 1916 interaction with an amnesiac soldier, Bernard. Sadly, the writing of these scenes does not hold the same weight, and it feels awkward and predictable as Bernard gradually remembers bits of his past. Joel Parry as Bernard gives a strong attempt at stirring the audience, however the writing never gives him much room to maneouvre beyond the character’s impotence and frustration. The final denouement intertwines the two stories further, but doesn’t seem entirely necessary for the progression of their characters or their stories.
Benedict Power finds some lovely moments of lightness and ease in the interactions between Bernard and Else, as well as directing a lovely sequence of Elsie lifting and nursing a suit on a bed representing an injured soldier. The repeated sequence of Elsie dressing for work, putting on her own battle armour to face the war, was a great refrain that punctuated the piece.
War Storiesis a solid and powerful piece of theatre performed by talented actors which is successful in bringing to light some of the forgotten stories; the rôle the Australians played in the war, the experiences of the nurses, and the literally forgotten stories of those men and women scarred by what they had seen and done during the Great War.
Runs as part of Re:Play 2015 Festival until 14th January 2015