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TNC Archive 2015

Written & Directed by John Burrows
Originally Published 2015 During its World Premiere at The Finborough Theatre

One of the biggest problems we have in our modern society is how we pay tribute to those who made the ultimate sacrifice in order for us to live the free lives we enjoy today. In 2014 one of the important Centenaries took place, the 100 years since the start of World War 1 and there was going to no shortness of events across the UK that ensured we developed a new found respect for the actions of these great people.


Theatre was, thanks to ongoing productions of War Horse and Private Peaceful, the ideal place for new works were able to showcase some of these remarkable stories. Director/Playwright John Burrows latest production, Stony Broke in No Man’s Land, made its world premiere at the Finborough Theatre and leaves a indelible impression on its audience. 


The moment the audience meet Percy, David Brett, and Nellie, Gareth Williams, the tone of the play was set and with the simplest of devices used by both Brett and Williams a stunningly touching story comes to life. It’s 1916 and young Percy meets up with the woman he loves Nellie, a nonsense talking shopgirl who works at Selfridges, to tell her that he’s been given his sign up papers. Nellie tries, somewhat half heartedly, to convince him to lie to the officials and not go but Percy believes the only way he can get out of it is if she marries him. Nellie scoffs at this idea and tells him ‘they’d be calling up married men soon enough’ anyway.


So Percy, knowing he’s doing his ‘bit’ for King and Country, now finds himself in the trenches flanked by his well-meaning and avid diary writing commanding officer Second Lieutenant Clement Munroe. But this would prove to be a somewhat short venture into the enemy territory and now, back in London faces the daunting task of trying to mend himself whilst still pining for he beloved Nellie. However things in London have changed greatly for his Nellie who has now managed to wangle a gig as a medium but Percy return offers her the chance to expand on her new found venture.


Brett and Williams come on on to stage carrying a folding table and box-chairs that will be the plays only main props. This minimal aspect of the productions works really well allowing the duo to move freely about the small space with little fuss. In the background stands a replica of the ‘call to arms’ poster that would have been seen all over the UK during the war, a notice that tells the public of the changes in age requirements as the government has spent up their volunteers. As this looms permanently in the background throughout the play the audience is always aware of the human sacrifice that WW1 had on its people and we’ve never allowed to forget this.


Each of Burrows character are brought to life with an unquestionable zeal by the duo who flick through the different accents and mannerisms with gusto. They’ve opted for a subtle approach that allows the breadth of these characters to come out clear and always enables a connection with the audience. Throughout the production, both from direction and acting a vaudevillian beauty is presented that really does makes fringe theatre so rewarding and is so rarely seen in this genuine way. This throwback something of a lost tradition in our theatre brings a uniqueness to this production that holds and keeps hold of the audience the moment Brett and Williams coming onto the stage.


One of playwrights Burrows keenest observations was the treatment of the returning soldiers by the establishment just after the war. The depiction of the struggle and the protest by the returned officers was remarkably staged with only two actors and offers audiences a great opportunity to being to understand what life was like for the returned soldiers. It’s even more surprising when we look at 100 years later and returning service men and women are still not given the life they had been promised for such an ultimate sacrifice they have made. 


Burrows was able to, without making it a huge point, show how Prime Minster Lloyd George felt about the returning soldiers and that, where he could, everything should be done for them and their families. It’s this addition of the soldiers families that really illustrates that it’s not just the soldiers who made the sacrifice during The Great War, many families also had t done ‘their bit’. Without doubt one of the strongest aspects come throughout all the discussions about the Unknown Warrior. There are elements during this part of the play that make you wonder if it was in fact something to allow the whole nation to ‘mourn’ for the war dead or if it was just a brilliant piece of propaganda. That aside it opens you eyes to the significants of this event, something we know about but perhaps not something we’ve looked into. As the precision is described by a young boy and as Nellie watches on you’d be hard pushed to hold back you tears at such a delicately presented scene.  

"It’s even more surprising when we look at 100 years later and returning service men and women are still not given the life they had been promised for such an ultimate sacrifice they have made."

As the second act came to a close one had to take a moment to sit back and let the whole play sink in. The balance that Burrows has created as both director and writer has allowed his company to bring these complex and fully rounded characters to life who have this power to offer modern audiences a brief snapshot at what life would ave been like during 1916-1920.


There is an emotional punch that Stony Broke in No Man’s Land has that one expected but didn’t think would come so early in the production. Both Brett and Williams are exceptional performers who inject the humour that is at the heart of Burrows text with ease and complete commitment. 

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