Pros: The research and effort that went into the production are admirable, and I very much enjoyed the children actors’ performances.
Cons: I missed a strong storyline, credible characters and an ending that ties together all the loose strings.
Two boys grow up together in a dilapidated manor house in rural Edwardian England. Despite their differences in language, social class and character, they develop a friendship that changes their lives, and that is tested when they meet again, in the trenches of the First World War.
This production at the Courtyard Theatre slips in and out of the past and present, English and French, humour and terror. We meet the boys in more happy times, learning poetry with their Alsatian governess, playing with wooden soldiers and poking fun at their inebriated family servant. The story of their chance encounter in their youth sits closely together with the older Charles and Alfred, who, dirty, weary and increasingly mentally unstable, are stuck in a cellar in the midst of the Great War. The play is steeped in poetry from England and the continent: Kipling, Victor Hugo, Arthur Rimbaud.
It’s a tough one, because, as much as I like the premise of the piece, it didn’t really work as well as it could have. For one, I didn’t feel as though the actors were comfortable in their roles. I missed any character development, and the emotions and relationships between them were confusing – partly because they seemed to talk past each other most of the time, rather than to each other. Also, I found the writing somewhat highbrow and overdone, making the characters even less authentic and credible. The incorporation of poetry in three different languages did not seem natural and organic, but forced unto the piece. Praise is definitely called for regarding the effort that must have gone into a handful of actors presenting a long, trilingual, complicated and multifaceted play, and maybe the awkwardness will pass with more practice.
Another problematic aspect is that too many strands were explored, most of which do not tie together neatly. There’s the story of the Alsatians’ plight and flight from their home country, which is confusing to anyone who is not familiar with the history of the region. The hints at the dark and troubling past of Marie-Anne, the boys’ governess, as well as Alfred’s mother, are left unresolved. Why does Louis, Charles’ obnoxious older relative, bribe Rochester-like William? Why does Marie-Anne get so very angry when William proposes to her? There were just too many aspects to the play – cultural differences, boyhood and manhood, social differences, literature, a world war, and none was properly explored. An incredible amount of historical and literary research must have gone into the writing, but I wish writer Mick Wood had been less ambitious.
That said, it was far from being a not enjoyable evening, and I thought the children actors did a great job. I also liked the staging and the costumes, right down to the soldier’s dirty fingernails (though I did wish the two of them had not been clean-shaven). Overall, less might have been a lot more. It is a worthy attempt to portray intricate social, political and cultural circumstances before and during the war, but I would have liked a stronger focus, a more well developed storyline and less stilted language.
Writer: Mick Wood
Director: Natasha Wood
Producer: Jolly Good Show/Théâtre Volière
Booking Until: 8th March
Box Office: 0844 477 1000
Booking Link: http://www.thecourtyard.org.uk/whatson/360/poilu-tommy