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Stony Broke in No Man’s Land

John Burrows
Vertical Man Productions
Finborough Theatre

Gareth Williams and David Brett Credit: Carlotta Luke

John Burrows’s new play takes its title from a music hall song, here sung by a couple of medal-wearing, unemployed ex-soldiers, playing fiddle and banjo and begging on the street in 1920.

However, it covers much more than the failure to make Britain a land “fit for heroes” as PM Lloyd George had promised. It starts in 1916 with the introduction of conscription and painter and decorator Percy Cotton getting his call up papers.

Girlfriend Nellie Mottram suggests he get out of it—claim to be doing essential war work or say fighting is against his religion—but Percy does what he is told is his duty. The play follows him to the Somme while concurrently showing Nellie’s life on the home front, taking her to Groves, a flat in Victoria near the Houses of Parliament and even 10 Downing Street.

As Private Cotton is about to make his first foray out of the trenches at the heels of friendly Lt Clement Munroe, the officer is shot in the head and, falling, knocks him off the ladder. Lying with a broken arm, he takes Munroe’s diary and a prized photo, determined to get them back to his family. That sets in motion Nellie's involvement with the Munroes and the parallel part of this story.

While politicians and generals con their soldiers into fighting for their country’s cause, Nellie is conning the Lt Munroe’s parents into believing that she’s a psychic whose spirit guide, Cleopatra handmaid of the Pharaoh Rameses, can connect them with their son.

“Stony Broke…” frames the telling with Gareth Williams on fiddle and David Brett on banjo and sets up a style that enables two actors to play multiple characters, switching roles at the flick of a finger. Williams switches from an officer in the trenches to a slightly simpering Nellie, a butler, Lloyd George or a Russian bourgeois but however instant the characterisation it’s totally tangible.

Little David Brett (I can say that because I’m the same height) is one of my favourite actors, with a presence ten time his size. He presents a Percy you warm to, a touching Lady Munroe and the PM’s not-so-staid secretary who’s besotted with Nellie (strange tastes these posh people have).

As they play all these characters (and nurses and doctors and soldiers and servants), John Burrows's direction keeps a careful balance between an instant reality and a music hall double act. With a recruitment poster on boarding the only setting, plus a couple of crates and a make-shift table, it is left to the actors to mime all the props and this helps takes the ghoulishness out of blown-off heads and digging up bodies.

There is lots of laughter, but at people’s behaviour, not their situation. That doesn’t weaken this clever play’s impact for the butt of the joke remains the British people. They are still conned post-war as the government seeks to control them, to divert dissent and dissatisfaction away from revolutionary channels into an outpouring of respectful grief and remembrance by the creation of an ecumenical cenotaph and the burial of an unknown warrior: that idea here is made to be Nellie’s and the body is dug up on the battlefield by Percy.

This is a beautifully compact piece of theatre, well deserving its place in the Finborough’s The GreatWar 100 series of productions, its effectiveness owing much to the energy of its accomplished performers.

Stony Broke in No Man’s Land plays on Sundays, Mondays and Tuesday matinées only in repertoire with The One Day of the Year.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton