They say that when staring death in the face, life can flash before your eyes. Countless plays and films over the years have taken full advantage of this as an artistic device, an easy way to rewind and describe events that have led up to that fateful moment. The Greater Game is no different, a lazy choice by writer Michael Head, who starts his story not quite at the end. Tilly Vosburgh directs a flashback play that attempts to remind us of the courage, comradery and dedication that a group of young men have to each other, to their sport and to a legacy they covet. This is a trip down memory lane, one that may be poignant and emotional to those remembering it, but feels all too pedestrian and bland to the spectators watching from the sidelines.
Childhood friends grow up together, play football together and eventually achieve their dream to be professionals in the same team – Peter Hannah and Will Howard are a pleasant duo. Their fellow team mates are equally as affable, which all makes for a good-natured football team. Hard as nails Graeme McKnight; bumbling simpleton Greg Baxter; gobby Danny Walters; not forgetting team captain Charlie Clements and head coach Nick Hancock, the latter three lending their TV personality names in order to reach a wider audience appeal. When the war hits, the whole team signs up as one, brothers to the end. As expected for the time, the sense of patriotism and bravery in defending their nation ranks higher in their decision-making process than telling their wives and loved ones, who seemingly exist to darn socks, wash clothes and keep a tidy home. The Great War, it turns out, is not as forgiving, or as glorious, as they expect.
A play of two halves, The Greater Game splits its time between the monotony of home life with the equally matched, if all the more terrifying, monotony of war. The drudgery of football to home, repeated ad nauseam, forms the first half of Head’s script and has no originality in Vosburgh’s direction – the atmosphere is flat, lacking any creative intrigue or excitement. The war inexorably draws closer and then is itself drawn out, with barely even a flash to drag this play out of its haze.
There are few moments less interesting in a production than when an actor reads out a letter verbatim on stage, except perhaps when both writer and recipient take it in turns to narrate. Often it does nothing to accelerate the plot, provides an obvious opportunity for lazy emotional characterisation and doesn’t enhance an audience experience whatsoever. Head chooses this method as a recitative, a regular occurrence that connects the soldiers at the front with the coach and family safe back home. Needless to say it doesn’t present anything tangible here either. The actors do their best with the cards they are dealt, but are ultimately unable to make this material come alive with any true grit, angst or believability.
The predictable choices don’t stop there; paper boys shout out, ‘Extra, extra!’ in an attempt to add period features and lighthearted comedy to the piece; the casualties of war, once deceased, rise again to meet each other in the afterlife; women (Patsy Lowe and Laura Webb) sing their men off to the front in the expected British spirited fashion, albeit with nasal, unaccompanied vocals that stray out of tune more often than not.
Ultimately, this is a story that doesn’t push boundaries or re-ignite any sense of pride in one’s country. It is a touching tale of a football team that banded together and fought for King and country, but when all is said and done it is an unfortunately forgettable production about a group of men that fell during The Great War, along with just under a million others.
The Greater Game is on until 15th October 2016 at Southwark Playhouse. Click here for more details.