By Max Saunders-Singer
Dir. Sonnie Beckett
53two Manchester | 19:30 | £10 | Tickets
1 hour and 45 minutes (Inc Interval)
Note: This review is from the 2014 run at Tristan Bates Theatre in London directed by Sebastien Blanc.
Pip, Max Saunders-Singer, tells his jailor Harper, Simon Naylor, that he is a pacifist and refuses to fight, in fact, he refuses to do anything that would assist in the war, and as a result, he is locked up awaiting trial on the battlefields of France.
Conscientious Objector - 'Conchies' - could face the firing squad if their claims were not successful but Pip remains resolute refusing to crack under the pressure.
With the constant bombardment of shells and sporadic gunfire heard in the background Pip tries to communicate with his fellow prisoner Moon, Sam Adamson, a young boy from Ireland who is suffering from 'shell-shock'. Harper begins to mellow as he awaits the trial dates for his two prisoners and starts treating the two prisoners like humans. Though Pip and Moon may have found some unlikely support in Harper the same can't be said of Blythe, John Askew, the foulmouthed private who is intent on being an unrelenting sadistic bully.
By the end of Act 1, the audience was in a stunned silence, no applause, not even an attempt at an applause, as nothing it seemed could break the silence and for a few moments, we all just sat there as the theatre lights came up. The treatment that both Moon and Pip endured would have been a reality for many men during WW1. Director Sebastien Blanc has ensured that the brutality in Saunders-Singer writing was realistically visualized by the ensemble and created some very tense and emotional moments within the company.
Theatre must always rise, and in some cases exceed audiences expectations. For new theatre, this is an incredibly difficult bar to reach but time and time again new companies show an ease at shattering expectations and creating theatre that is powerfully original. As soon as you walk into the theatre the set by DoBo Designs hits you and is a work of wonder. The team have made great use of the Tristan Bates space which has led them to create such an effective and functional set.
From the moment we see Moon, Adamson, questions begin to fill our minds and throughout most of the play the intensity that Adamson brings to 'Moon' is astonishing. The relationships that are formed between the characters are complex but never forced and each of the characters has been written with an insightful realism that played to both the brutality of this war and humanity.
Harper is perhaps one of the more complex of the characters that are finding himself conflicted with his position and the role he now plays in this war. Naylor delivers a warm and sympathetic character that never really judges Pip and the longer the war continues the more questions he finds himself asking. Harper's conversation with Pip towards the end of the play illustrates the conscience and conflict that this was having.
The ensemble has bonded and fully connected to their characters which play to the realism that is projected from the stage. Interesting each of the men, bar Blythe, have shown clear signs of how the war has had an effect on them but Blythe is the only character to smile and offers nothing redeeming about his person. Askew plays Blythe as though on a knife edge and is only kept from being truly horrid by his superior Harper.
But perhaps the most heartbreaking scene came between Harper and Moon in Act 2. For the briefest of moments Harper's gentle, protective, and caring side tore through the horrors of what was around them. Naylor's hand gently shook as he raised it to wash Adamson's face and one could feel the pain his character was feeling. This was a scene that was so beautiful in its humanity it powerfully creates an unforgettable image that will be lodged in your memory.
'He connects well to his actors and through his productions, one can see a bond of trust between them and him that allows risks to be taken.'
Saunders-Singer writing has exposed some truly horrid aspects of WW1 and the effects that it was having on its men. His text allows the audience to be guided through these horrors these men were living with day to day and the mental distress hat this was having on them. He offers up some insightful talking points between Pip and Harper about the alternatives to war, the notion of discourse over fighting, but never labours too much on this. Being the playwright and actor in your own play can't be an easy task but Saunders-Singer has written a character that has genuine convictions for what he believes and never lets Pip waiver.
The ensemble is guided well by their director Blanc whom himself is establishing a reputation as someone to watch as he continues to create theatre at this standard. He connects well to his actors and through his productions, one can see a bond of trust between them and him that allows risks to be taken. The Glasshouse is a remarkable achievement in theatre from a company who, if they continue creating a show of this calibre, is going to have a bright future.
Partway through The Glasshouse, I was struck with a curious thought that this shouldn't have been as good as it was. A new play from such a young company should be fraught with a few natural dips but Saunders-Singer writing is tight and fully engages the audience.
'Lest We Forget' is the slogan of the Poppy Appeal in the UK and if plays like 'The Glasshouse' continue to be made one will never forget the horror and sacrifice of these men during WW1.