Star rating - 7/10
Seeing a play about the horrors of the trenches during the First World War should have had a particular poignancy on the day before the 11th of November, and in many ways it did, but this particular performance suffered so much from the audience reaction to it that it was all a bit spoilt.
This was nothing to do with the actual performance; it was entirely due to the Lowry being full of literally coach loads of teenagers on school trips. I don’t want to sound churlish, and I am all for people of all ages enjoying the theatre as much as I do, but I have never experienced so much coughing, rustling of sweet papers, playing on mobile phones, back ground chatter, and – worst of all – laughing throughout the play in totally inappropriate places. Full marks to the actors for playing on despite the distractions.
Now to the actual play – this is a moving and harrowing story which is on its national tour after a successful West End run. The author, D. C. Sherrif based it on his own experiences, and it is all the more realistic for that. It is the story of fresh faced Lieutenant Raleigh, who arrives in France straight from school, and is thrilled to find that the company captain is his older school friend Captain Stanhope. But war has changed his old friend considerably, not least by his new reliance on copious amounts of whiskey to get him through each day. James Norton as Stanhope and Graham Butler as his young devotee are very well played.
Some of the boredom of the long hours spent waiting for something to happen is transmitted well, although in truth perhaps the play could have had the same effect and been slightly shorter. But the small details of the terrible experience lighten the hours, such as the terrible food, served up with great care by their cook. The noise of the battle, when it comes, is terrific. And the great staging transmits something of the claustrophobia the men must have felt, like foxes in holes.
So it was a great play, with a poignant ending, which is inevitably heart wrenching, despite the unruly audience. To be fair, and oddly, the teenagers whooped with joy at the end of it, despite their seeming unappreciation all the way through. It’s a very sobering thought that many of them are the same age as the young men who were sent, and many of whom volunteered, to fight and die in the Great War.