I wasn’t sure what to expect of this production – after all, World War plays have been done to death, haven’t they? But I was immediately intrigued by the set: a washing line (hanging out the washing on the Siegfied Line perhaps?) pegged out not just with sheets but with bits of paper and what looked like newspapers; a few props comprising a stepladder, large metal trunk, a cable drum, a tin bath, a mocked up old style newsreel camera and a couple of wooden blocks.
My first query was answered by the ‘prologue’, in which one of the three cast members explained how this is an original take on World War I – the company have travelled around the country collecting individual memories, letters and museum archive documents with the aim of making the story of ordinary people’s war experiences more personal. And it worked.
We heard a variety of experiences of real people as they faced ‘the war to end all wars’, including a self-employed builder who despite his wife’s protests felt it right to leave his seven children to fight for King and Country; an upper-class female ambulance driver on the front line in France, and an English officer with a colonial regiment who was singled out for fire because as a white man the enemy recognised him as an officer. What could be an incoherent string of unrelated stories is cleverly modelled round a framework of a day’s TV coverage, starting with breakfast TV news and ending with Newsnight, and including plenty of Isle of Wight local news items!
Far from being simply tales of doom however, the production abounds with humour and there are several laugh out loud moments, whether at the drunk old man singing in the pub (cleverly portrayed simultaneously with a completely different character on stage by the same actor), or at the audience being pelted by screwed up bits of paper – I’ll leave you to see the show to find out why!
The laughter was tempered by a deeper understanding of real experiences however: in fact the show was a masterclass in manipulating the audience’s emotions: I found the reading of letters written during the war years the most emotional moments, particularly the ending of the show in which two ‘Tommys’ write home from Paschendale immediately before ‘going over the top’. In a scene reminiscent of the famous closing sequence of ‘Blackadder Goes Forth’, the soldiers emerge from their trenches and run through the audience; this is followed by a couple of short poetry readings including John Donne’s ‘No man is an Island’ verse, leaving the audience stunned and thoughtful.
The atmosphere is aided by the music and lighting effects but the real stars of the show are the three incredibly talented actors who between them portrayed an amazing range of characters perfectly, while seamlessly keeping the action onstage moving, and the props which became among other things new furniture being moved into a house, an ambulance, a pub, a steam train and of course the trenches themselves.
Local news 1914 will be staged one last time on Friday 11th August at 8.30pm in The Pier Playhouse (Ventnor Baptist Church) – take my advice: if you can in any way get a ticket, you need to see this show!
NOTE: Tell Tale Productions also present ‘Uncle Richard’ on Saturday and Sunday at 6pm at Trinity Theatre – if it’s anywhere near as good as ‘1914’, I’d get a ticket now!