In this centennial year of the start of the First World War, British theatre has hardly lacked plays exploring the horrors of 1914 to 1918. But where Sevan Greene’s intense, grittily believable two-hander succeeds in distinguishing itself is in its intimacy – pushing behind the international politicking to bring us up close to life in the trenches while simultaneously exploring the terrible vortex of the British Empire in wartime.
Its starting point is a classic mismatched pairing: when, during the Battle of Guillemont in 1916, Henry Regan’s droll, cynical Buck, an Irishman separated from his regiment, very literally drops into the life of brittle, officious Englishman Simon (Jack Morris) – alone in his trench and on his last nerve – they are far from friends. Greene mines a rich vein of black humour in their clashes over rules and regulations, with Buck’s disregard for protocol infuriating Simon at every turn.
But from dealing with Simon’s lice infestation to his depiction of the wince-worthy treatment of a gunshot wound suffered by Buck, Greene establishes a grippingly believable comradeship founded on grim necessity. These two men need each other as surely as friends in other circumstances. The horror here lies in the low-key awfulness of every aspect of trench life.
The play also uses the men’s backgrounds to fascinatingly explore the complex role played by a wider British Empire co-opted into England’s war effort. In a powerful, angry exchange pivoting on Buck’s Irish heritage and Simon’s sense of displacement after growing up in India – performed with gripping conviction by Regan and Morris – Greene delves into the deep-seated national tensions and unequal social treatment underlying any myth of a united ‘British’ Front.
There’s no room for the hollow principles and grand-sounding ideals of war-mongering patriotism: Buck and Simon freely acknowledge that they’re fighting to protect friends and loved ones rather than out of pride in a nation that treats them as second-class citizens. This play is deeply cynical about the mechanisms of war but hopeful – in even the bleakest circumstances – about human nature. Here, small acts of kindness are as sustaining as the biscuits Buck recovers from the body of a dead soldier.
Director Jonny Collis wisely keeps the tone of the production naturalistic and the delivery of the dialogue low-key, allowing moments of drama to bubble up unforced. Coupled with designer Isa Shaw-Abulafia’s traverse trench set – which drops us into the middle of the two men’s cautious rapport – this creates an atmospheric sense of immediacy.
Early on, the delivery of some lines is a little too understated to always be clear enough, the play briefly loses momentum halfway through and a key moment towards the climax would benefit from greater build-up. But these are minor niggles. Together, Vertical Line Theatre and new venue COG Arts Space have produced a well-acted and insightful piece of drama that bodes well for any future collaborations.