As it was Armistice Day yesterday, it seemed a perfect moment to review a production set just before and during the First World War called Into Battle. This is a relatively new production having only played at Greenwich Theatre as recently as last month, and then recorded and moved onto the stream.theatre platform. The era is well documented through plays such as Journey’s End, novels like Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy and especially its poetry which is still a staple of the school English curriculum. So, Hugh Salmon’s play doesn’t exactly cover much new ground, but it does come at matters from a slightly different angle which makes a pleasingly refreshing change.
For this is a narrative about two wars, the international one with which we will be somewhat familiar but also one that concerns class, social mobility and the respective lots of the haves and the have nots. The play starts in 1910 with the doings and concerns of a set of undergraduates at Balliol College, Oxford many of whom have come there from Eton and who form an exclusive clique The Annandale Society which preceded the equally notorious Bullingdon Club. Drunken escapades, bullying, a sense of social and economic superiority are the norm. But in opposition to them are a set of more socially aware students who recognise the massive divide in society and want to see “levelling up” over a century before the term became part of the lexicon. Although not actual leaders as such, the factions revolve around the privileged and entitled Hon. Billy Grenfell and earnest though rather dull Keith Rae. The two become bitterly opposed, needling and goading each other at every opportunity. When Grenfell is in danger of being sent down after trashing Rae’s room, his mother Lady Desborough rides to the rescue waving her cheque book and buying her family out of a scandalous position. In Act 2 the focus shifts to the trenches of the First World War where the two opponents, by one of those quirks of fate, find themselves in the same regiment and have to effect a rapprochement in the face of a common enemy. Now at this point you’re probably thinking that the storyline here seems highly contrived, but not a bit of it. The young men all existed, the feud is well documented, and the two men really did find themselves fighting alongside each other; truth really can be stranger than fiction.
This is a strongly cast production with a fine octet of actors working well as an ensemble. Nikolas Salmon (not sure if there’s a family connection with the writer) plays the oafish Grenfell with wild abandon and a sneering countenance for those of the lower orders; he feels he can do exactly as he likes as he has the means to pay his way out of any trouble. Inevitably, in the midst of all the current sleaze allegations he has had a good many role models to choose from. Meanwhile Joe Gill captures the socially crusading zeal of Rae and has a particularly fine moment when agonising over whether to compromise his principles by accepting Lady Desborough’s bribe. There’s strong back up from Sam Barrett as Ronald Poulton-Palmer (heir to the biscuit manufacturer) and Gabriel Freilich as Billy’s older and often equally boorish brother Julian who eventually becomes a respected poet. Patrick Shaw Stewart, another student/soldier/poet is extremely well developed by Alexander Knox. He must be getting used to this sort of thing as he also played the equally doomed Charles Sorley in the Finborough’s recent It Is Easy To be Dead.
As with all plays set in the circumstances of the Great War, there is rather less for the women to do though Anna Bradley makes a fine job of doubling as the Grenfell’s maid and chirpy young squaddie, Perkins. Molly Gaisford leaves no doubt that Lady Desborough is somewhat to blame for the antics of her sons and is not above flouting the moral code herself when she makes a play for one of the young men. Once the scene shifts to the war the character gets rather left behind apart from an overlong deathbed scene with her older son which could have said just as much at half the length. It’s really the only mis-step by director Ellie Jones who uses a splendid set from Ellen Cairns which superimposes Oxford’s dreaming spires onto the battlefields of northern Europe. This is beautifully enhanced by the atmospheric lighting of Alexandra Stafford and the evocative soundscape of James Cook.
While I wouldn’t class the play as an unmitigated triumph, it’s a neat slice of social and political history which is well handled and deftly directed/performed. If nothing else it’s a sobering reminder that the pursuit of social equality is an aim that’s been alive for longer than any of us have. It’s also absolutely perfect to complement the various acts of commemoration which occur at this time of year. If you missed it on the actual anniversary yesterday it will still be available on Remembrance Sunday and for some time after that. And if you buy tickets today/tomorrow then a donation will go to the Poppy Appeal. Definitely recommended.