Stony Broke In No Man's Land
Vertical Man Productions in association with Neil McPherson for the Finborough Theatre
A bitter song of First World War veterans opens the play Stony Broke In No Man's Land. It contrasts the horror and sacrifice of the war with the broken promise to returning soldiers that they would get their old jobs back. The song, which becomes the title of the show, is returned to several times as we see the way many of those back in England have exploited the war.
Gareth Williams and David Brett play twenty-one parts in a comic story that takes us from the streets of London to the battlefields of the Somme and the post-revolutionary state of Russia.
The story centres on the characters of Percy Cotton (Brett) and the woman he wants to marry Nellie Mottram (Williams). It begins in 1916 when Percy is conscripted and sent to join the troops at the Somme.
Wounded in battle and recovering in Britain, he shows Nellie a diary of an officer he saw killed which he intends to take to the officer’s family. Nellie offers to deliver it but instead uses its contents to convince the officer's parents, Sir Arthur Munroe and his wife Lady Elizabeth Monroe, that she is in contact with their dead son. The lie gets her an invitation to stay with the family, a reputation as a medium and a relationship with the character Sir Gregory Sleight (Brett), Secretary to the War Cabinet.
The rich people Nellie meets are just as opportunist as Nellie except they have more power. Sir Arthur Munroe is a shipping magnate who has made a vast fortune out of promoting British dominance and in turn a war to defeat Germany even though, as his wife claims, this has led to his son’s death.
The most interesting section of the play concerns the British government decision to create a monument to the unknown warrior. It takes place during a post-war crisis when governments across Europe are faced with massive discontent and revolution. Soldiers are returning from the war angry and without employment. There are regular demonstrations.
In 1918, en route to Parliament, Sir Gregory Sleight walks through a protest march led by the National Federation of Discharged and Demobilized Sailors and Soldiers when it is attacked by baton-wielding police who knock him to the ground. It is a sign of how unstable the situation has become.
People don’t even have access to the graves of their dead family members. There has been no effort to return dead bodies to Britain. We see the rich making their pilgrimage to the anonymous locations in France where many of the dead were believed to be. But even that is not something most families can afford.
Nellie suggests bringing back an unknown soldier to Britain as a focus for the grief. In her words, "the whole country needs a cuddle".
It’s an idea that Sir Gregory and in turn the then Prime Minister David Lloyd George (Williams) cynically take up, creating the Cenotaph and its ceremony to unify a clearly divided nation. The soldiers sent to obtain a body are told that just one corpse will be returned for the purpose and that it should not be in a state of putrefaction.
The fast-moving and humorous vaudevillian style of Williams and Brett creates believable characters, is compassionate in the depiction of their circumstances, and is gently critical of those in power. This is an enjoyable play that helps us understand a terrible period in British history.
Reviewer: Keith Mckenna