Stony Broke in No Man’s Land continues at the Finborough Theatre in London until 26 January
Star rating: * * * * (four stars)
Returning to the Finborough following a successful run last Summer is playwright John Burrows’ captivating and at times moving tale of comradeship, love and loss during and just after World War I. The play, which Burrows’ also directs, is the latest of the acclaimed pub theatre’s Great War 100 centenary series, which is running from 2014 to 2018. While not by any stretch of the definition a musical, it nonetheless is bookended with songs and features the occasional burst of musical colour.
Stony Broke tackles the topic of personal and national grief, and how the country came to terms with the atrocious slaughter of World War I. It also explores the solution that would eventually provide closure: the full state funeral of the Unknown Soldier.
A varied dramatis personae – tommys, officers, a charlatan medium, doctors, knights of the realm and even Prime Minister David Lloyd George himself – is expertly played by just two actors, both of whom are utterly compelling: David Brett and Gareth Williams. Older theatre-goers as the founding members of the 1980s a capella group The Flying Pickets.
Both men shuffle on stage dressed in old suits and shabby coats, perhaps a pair of busking veterans, as they carry instruments and their flea-bitten coats are pinned with war medals. They break into song – the title, “Stony Broke In No Man’s Land" – before sharing the narration duties and recounting their (non-musical) tale.
Brett’s principle role is that of Percy Cotton, an East London teenager conscripted in 1916. It’s Percy’s story that’s threaded through the play, with the majority of the characters he encounters along the way played by Williams. Brett has the most wonderfully animated face, full of wide-eyed wonder as Private Cotton, but then haughty and aloof as Lady Elizabeth Munroe, who’s son is killed in action, and imperious and manipulative as Sir Gregory Sleight, who makes advances on Percy’s paramour Nellie.
Williams, in turn, delivers a bravura performance as, principally, Nellie – an exploitative palm reader who cashes in on the desperate trend for seances – as well as the bereaved Sir Arthur Munroe, and PM Lloyd George. In all, he takes on 15 roles.
I’m sure they won’t mind me saying that neither men are spring chickens, yet they tackle this multitude of roles with youthful abandon, throwing themselves around the stage in trench warfare, striking a seductive pose when required or picking up their instruments – Brett on the banjolele, Williams on the fiddle – and accompanying themselves in song. It’s a two-hour acting masterclass: each inhabits their characters fully and brings them to life through a change of voice, a shift in comportment and the subtlest of facial expression. They are an absolute joy to watch.
As varied as the roles are the settings, from the streets of Woolwich and the parlours of West London, to the trenches of the Somme and the dachas of post-revolutionary Russia. Yet, like the cast, the staging is scant. In fact, other than a “Your King and Country Needs You” recruitment poster, a small trestle table and a couple of wooden crates, there’s nothing for Brett and Williams to work with. Even the lighting goes unnoticed (by me, anyway). And yet this talented pair – with no help from the costume department – work their magic and whisk us to these many exotics locales.
My terrible confession is that I knew little of the detail behind the Unknown Soldier, so for this knowledge alone, I’m glad that I caught Stony Broke. That it’s done with such wit, humour and warmth makes it a richer, more personal experience. A Horrible Histories for grown ups. Brett and Williams – one tall and stiff, the other short and cheeky – treat us to what is ultimately a very British story, pitched perfectly as a musical hall act. That said, more music and a more efficient script would only have pleased me more.