Online via Stream.Theatre – until 31 January 2022
Remembrance Day seemed a perfect moment to review a production set just before and during the First World War called Into Battle. This is a relatively new production having only played at Greenwich Theatre as recently as last month, and then recorded and moved onto the stream.theatre platform.
The era is well documented through plays such as Journey’s End, novels like Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy and especially its poetry which is still a staple of the school English curriculum. So, Hugh Salmon’s play doesn’t exactly cover much new ground, but it does come at matters from a slightly different angle which makes a pleasingly refreshing change.
For this is a narrative about two wars, the international one with which we will be somewhat familiar but also one that concerns class, social mobility and the respective lots of the haves and the have nots. The play starts in 1910 with the doings and concerns of a set of undergraduates at Balliol College, Oxford many of whom have come there from Eton and who form an exclusive clique The Annandale Society which preceded the equally notorious Bullingdon Club.
Drunken escapades, bullying, a sense of social and economic superiority are the norm. But in opposition to them are a set of more socially aware students who recognise the massive divide in society and want to see “levelling up” over a century before the term became part of the lexicon. Although not actual leaders as such, the factions revolve around the privileged and entitled Hon. Billy Grenfell and earnest though rather dull Keith Rae. The two become bitterly opposed, needling and goading each other at every opportunity. When Grenfell is in danger of being sent down after trashing Rae’s room, his mother Lady Desborough rides to the rescue waving her cheque book and buying her family out of a scandalous position.
In Act 2 the focus shifts to the trenches of the First World War where the two opponents, by one of those quirks of fate, find themselves in the same regiment and have to effect a rapprochement in the face of a common enemy. Now at this point you’re probably thinking that the storyline here seems highly contrived, but not a bit of it. The young men all existed, the feud is well documented, and the two men really did find themselves fighting alongside each other; truth really can be stranger than fiction.
This is a strongly cast production with a fine octet of actors working well as an ensemble. Nikolas Salmon (not sure if there’s a family connection with the writer) plays the oafish Grenfell with wild abandon and a sneering countenance for those of the lower orders; he feels he can do exactly as he likes as he has the means to pay his way out of any trouble. Inevitably, in the midst of all the current sleaze allegations he has had a good many role models to choose from. Meanwhile Joe Gill captures the socially crusading zeal of Rae and has a particularly fine moment when agonising over whether to compromise his principles by accepting Lady Desborough’s bribe. There’s strong back up from Sam Barrett as Ronald Poulton-Palmer (heir to the biscuit manufacturer) and Gabriel Freilich as Billy’s older and often equally boorish brother Julian who eventually becomes a respected poet. Patrick Shaw Stewart, another student/soldier/poet is extremely well developed by Alexander Knox. He must be getting used to this sort of thing as he also played the equally doomed Charles Sorley in the Finborough’s recent It Is Easy To be Dead.
‘A fine octet of actors work well as an ensemble’: @johnchapman398 couldn’t resist reviewing @_HughSalmon’s WWI-set @IntoBattlePlay in time for #RemembranceSunday. Filmed at @GreenwichTheatr, it’s now available #ondemand via @stream_theatre. #onlineshows