Writer: Jesse Briton
Director: Natalie Wilson
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
The First World War retains a particular emotional hold in Britain and its experience is one that provokes a keener sense of pity and sorrow than any other conflict. Understandably, therefore, in this centenary year a number of new interpretations are being brought to the stage in order to understand what it was like to participate and what it now means to modern society. In this profoundly moving and beautifully constructed one act play, Jesse Briton has brought the war to life by examining the complex interplay of personal and military motivations that govern the lives of his three protagonists.
Will, Robbie and Jumbo, friends from Sunderland, have been at war for years and now find themselves in a Flanders observation post in 1917. But their time in the trenches could soon be over as their singing has attracted the attention of the German gunmen who have been using it to range their artillery, much to the displeasure of the British commanders. The pals are presented with a fatal choice, either submit to a court martial and likely firing squad, or act as bait by using their songs to distract the enemy while the British advance from another direction. Will the Muddy Choir become the heroic poster-boys of World War One or will the shells prove all too accurate in ending their songs for good?
The action takes place over a number of days, initially setting up the jokey and long-lasting friendship between these three men which feels remarkably genuine from the start. Will (Laurence Russell) is the sensible captain, fulfilling his orders and taking the war on the chin, but all the while trying to protect his friends. Sarcastic Robbie, a great performance by Ryan Penny, is frustrated by the war but knows deep down it needs to be fought, his railing against authority a means of suppressing his own fears. Last is Jumbo (Andrew Burrell) an innocent childlike man shielded by his friends but cannot cope much longer, misses his mum and longs for home.
Each man is distinct, yet impressively, their friendship feels very real. Briton’s success is in creating characters that could be replanted in another setting and would still be engaging. So often plays about this conflict try to too hard to reference key facts or cast judgements about disillusion or futility, yet here the essence of life on the front line – rations, lice and the constant waiting for something to happen – is seamlessly woven into the story. It is a play set in the First World War but it is the men and their comradeship that is the focus.
Sound and lighting are used brilliantly to create the atmosphere and danger of Ypres. As the audience take their seats the sound of shells and machine-gun fire is blasted over a speaker intermingled with scratchy songs from the time, while a near constant backdrop of artillery fire and sniper shots hitting the lip of the British trench underscore the dialogue. In the poignant final scene flashes of coloured light mixes with the sound to suggest explosions which pointedly drown out the voices of the men. Full credit to Elena Pena and Charlie Lucas for the authenticity this gives the play.
With just three characters it may be a faceless command giving orders and faceless enemy attacking them, but it is the humanity of Will, Robbie and Jumbo that shines through. There will be many more plays on this subject before the centenary period of is over but The Muddy Choir has set a high standard. It may be a short piece giving insight into one small aspect of an enormous conflict but it manages to be thought-provoking, blackly funny and deeply moving – in fact exactly how a play about the First World War ought to be written.
Runs Until: 24 September (and then on tour)