By Sarah Lambie, TD editor
Being the centenary of the beginning of the First World War, 2014 has already brought with it a spate of artistic, musical and theatrical works to mark the occasion. One such is Poilu and Tommy, a production from Strasbourg-based theatre company Théâtre Volière with a mixed-nationality cast from England and Alsace.
The first thing to say about this production is that a good 30-40% of it is in French. This is something to consider taking a sensible and focused A-level group along to: there is a good deal to be had out of it with no French at all, but it is certainly the case that I enjoyed it more because I was able to understand both languages. For the purposes of a more general drama trip this may not be the first choice, but this review treats it as a production, rather than necessarily a production for teachers.
Mick Wood, the playwright and co-founder of the theatre company with his director-wife Natasha, writes in the foreword to the programme: ‘The marvellous poetry that emerged from the trenches has perhaps blinded us to the marvellous poetry that helped to dig them’ – this is a play which tries to elucidate ‘just what it was about the European culture of the fin-de-siècle that made it such fertile ground for the nationalist warmongers of 1914-18’. The fact of the cast being made up of actors from two nations really aids this aspect of the play – the tensions even between ally countries; the hints at the tensions within Alsace – so long fought over by France and Germany, are all made clearer by the linguistic and national characteristics displayed on stage. The play is shot through with French poetry, delivered well even if the audience doesn’t understand every word.
A number of performances stand out from this production which make it particularly worth seeing. Tom Grace plays beautifully the line between tragedy and comedy as Alfred, a young soldier in the trenches. He lands throwaway moments of comedy perfectly as he battles with Lula Suassuna as Charles – whose character is also created with commitment, but who lacks in a few moments the same perfection of timing. I saw the play on its opening night, and would imagine that the cast has since become ready to wait for unexpected laughter from the audience – the impression given was that they weren’t expecting to be funny, so they drove straight through a few lovely moments.
The real stars of the show are the two young boys, Jan and Gabriel Wood, as the young Charles and Alfred. With perfect French and English, and a simple and natural emotional truth, both are a true pleasure to watch. The production values are necessarily limited in a studio production from a touring company, but the set was well used – my only reservation being that the stomping of hard-soled shoes on sand-covered studio wood flooring was in danger occasionally of obliterating the lines altogether.
Poilu and Tommy plays at the Courtyard Theatre, London, until 8 March 2014.