Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Armstrong's War

Colleen Murphy
Flying Bear Productions and ABG Productions in association with Neil McPherson for the Finborough Theatre
Finborough Theatre

Jessica Barden as Halley and Mark Quartley as Michael Credit: Alexander Darby
Jessica Barden as Halley Credit: Alexander Darby
Mark Quartley as Michael Credit: Alexander Darby

Corporal Michael Armstrong, who has been wounded in Afghanistan, is in the rehabilitation wing of an Ottawa hospital when Halley Armstrong comes to visit him.

Despite their names they are not related. Halley is a Pathfinder Girl Guide: which means she’s only 12-14. She is eager to gather as many guiding proficiency badges as she can. That is why she has volunteered to read to him—it will earn her a Community Service Badge. But Michael doesn’t want to be read to; in fact he is lying under his bed, ignoring everyone when she turns up in her wheelchair.

Halley has been injured too. It was a skiing accident, she says, that ended her Olympic career, though it turns out that’s not true. Michael is 21. He talks to a friend who isn’t there. She doesn’t stop talking; enthusiastically acting out the book she starts to read. He tells her to shut up. “You can’t come in here with your bullshit compassion,” he tells her.

What can this pair have in common: the man a casualty from a war he says no one is going to win and a girl who needs help even to get out of her wheelchair?

It has taken her a snow-delayed hour and a half to get to the hospital so he gives way and lets her read and having her first choice they start on Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, taking it in turns to read a passage.

Crane’s book opens up something in Michael that helps him deal with his own traumas, first by fictionalising them, and the unusual relationship that builds up between them over Halley’s weekly visits sees her facing things more honestly too as they clash on ideas of courage and duty to others, comradeship and disability.

It may seem obvious whom Michael talks to when alone but in both cases this pair’s admissions are not quite what you might expect.

Jennifer Bakst’s direction draws committed and honest performances from the actors. It doesn’t impose a logical naturalism on a play that is full of feeling. Jessica Barden beautifully captures Halley’s front of youthful, almost childish enthusiasm, her logorrhoea a bright façade.

Halley’s single-minded gabbling is irritating but Bakst ensures things move on before she bores us. Her visits, telescoped in time, are full of movement and interaction. Mark Quartley slowly reveals the buttoned-up emotions that Michael hides except for sparks of anger and the guilt that is his companion.

Armstrong’s War plays (Sunday and Monday evenings and Tuesday matinées only) on the set for As Is, which plays the rest of the week. This forces the action around Michael’s hospital bed right downstage, which doesn’t help sightlines, especially if you have someone tall or with big hair in front of you. It is a measure of the quality of the actors that, despite neck craning, their performances are so compelling.

Oddly, the theatre web site describes this as “a fully staged workshop production (prior to its official World Première in October 2013 at the renowned Arts Club Theatre, Vancouver)”. What does that make this then: an “unofficial première”, a preview? It doesn’t deserve such demotion for it is well worth seeing.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton