By Flossie Waite
A Theatre Centre Production
Touring until 28th November 2014
“No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells…”
Wilfred Owen’s lines live inside this production about three doomed youths, and it is the anticipation of their deaths that makes this such a tense production.
Will (Lawrence Russell), Robbie (Ryan Penny) and Jumbo (Andrew Burrell) are three best friends from Sunderland. They have stuck together through school, through army training, and now, through the trenches. The lilting quality of their Geordie accents matches their sincere singing; throughout the play, they pledge: “Ne killing, only singing and we all gan home together.” But intercepted German communications reveal that the sound of their voices is being used as a target for enemy attacks. One of their fellow soldiers is dead, and the Seargent Major is ready to have them court martialled; they will face the firing squad. Unless, that is, they can come together as a muddy choir and sing to distract the Germans from a British advance.
It is not a spoiler to suggest that something bad will happen. Sometimes the inevitable doesn’t make for great theatre, but the plot’s predictableness makes it even more painful. It is hard not to draw comparisons with Journey’s End, or many artistic depictions of the trenches in film, theatre and literature. We know from these representations, and history lessons, what will happen. But we don’t know how, we don’t know to who, and we don’t know when. The Muddy Choir is a waiting game.
The play is at its best in moments of appalling sound, and breathless quiet. The audience enters into an auditorium filled with noise – rain, gunfire, a heartbeat. Crackly war songs are brutally shot into silence; the terror sets in before Will, Robbie and Jumbo have stepped onto the stage. Throughout the play, they laugh and joke and sing to fill up the silence, but sometimes there’s no avoiding it. They immediately fall into a nervous quiet when they hear a whistle, waiting for the signal that their mission is starting. And there are no words when Jumbo asks, “Are we going to go home?”
Jesse Briton’s script can be a little heavy-handed at times. He finds all kinds of ways to get information about the period across to the young audience – the academically stupid (but emotionally acute) Jumbo needs a lot of things clarified, for instance. The poignancy of the boys’ singing is spelled out very early on: “Singing took me right back to before the war, to Sunderland.” However, it is far from patronising, offering up moral complexities without ever giving an answer. All three boys cope with the trenches in different ways, and they are all as right and wrong as each other, in a world where right and wrong don’t really exist. As Will says, “You cannot be like that here, it’s just madness.”
The emotional wrench of the play couldn’t be achieved without capable actors, swaying convincingly from jack-the-lad to earnest child. Whilst the loyalty and bravery they portray is inspiring, what the play really leaves the audience with is a feeling of anxiety and unease; remembering that if you couldn’t endure this for one hour, imagine what it must have been like. Just imagine.
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