by Colleen Murphy
Directed by Jennifer Bakst
Pros: A sweet story with stunning performances from two terrific performers.
Cons: The storyline occasionally felt a bit clunky.
Our Verdict: A beautifully acted piece which was often very funny in its tragedy. A touching account of friendship and fragility.
The premise of a world-weary adult who enters into an unlikely friendship with an eternal optimist who inspires them into self-improvement is not especially original. However, Armstrong’s War is sufficiently unique in its characterisations and content to be both entertaining and worthwhile. The play is set in a Canadian hospital where Afghan soldier Michael Armstrong is recovering from a leg injury. He is visited by a disabled 12 year old girl scout, Halley, who has been ordered to read aloud to him as he convalesces.
If this review were to focus solely on performances, I would have to give the show 5 stars.
has a reputation for high performance standards and this show is certainly no exception. Jessica Barden is both familiar and beguiling as Halley and the truthfulness of her performance is compelling to watch. She has terrific chemistry with Mark Quartley who plays Michael brilliantly. He is cold and withdrawn to begin with but the raw honesty and integrity of his character makes him a good match for the innocence of the girl scout.
It is so easy to get prepubescent girls wrong in characterisations. Inexperienced and shallow chit-chat can become wearing very quickly, while world-wise insight can often seem out of place. Playwright Colleen Murphy creates a nice mix of silliness and maturity in 12 year old Halley and Jessica Barden’s performance allows sweet humour where there could have been irritation.
Halley reads a mixture of laughably juvenile teen novels and harrowing stories about soldiers at war. The stories of these soldiers with their personal battles and tragedies cut deep and allow Michael’s character to open up and reveal the difficulties in his own life. The subject of soldiers preferring to die in battle rather than live with a major disability is perhaps unoriginal in fictional accounts. However, in this context, the issue takes on a new form with a young girl in a wheelchair relating it to her own life.
Despite all the tragedy in this piece, the show somehow manages to be brilliantly funny and there are perhaps more laugh-out-loud moments than tearful ones. In fact, comedy-dramas like this one can often be more affecting than full-on tragedies as we see how a sense of humour is a god-send in life’s more difficult moments. Both of these characters have lost something important and although they are very different people, their similarities are clear and the humour with which they cope with their loss is very touching indeed.
Perhaps the greatest difficulty explored in this piece is the lack of choice we have in our own battles. At least if we have a choice, we have some kind of power. Halley rewrites the story of her spinal chord injury so that she can reclaim the power to choose her own destiny. The powerlessness of the soldier at war, mutely carrying out orders and the similarities with our own lack of choice is both unsettling and fascinating.
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Armstrong’s War runs at the Finborough Theatre Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays
11, 12, 13, 18, 19, 20, 25, 26 and 27 August 2013.
Box Office: 0844 847 1652 or book online at