I personally really look forward to fringe venues that are above a pub, as I feel like there is so much charm involved with the homely touches and intimate vibe, and much to my approval, this is exactly what the Finborough Theatre is. It’s a tiny theatre space but it doesn’t feel cramped; it has more of an exclusiveness to it instead. It’s perfect for a story being told from the heart, which is what Stony Broke in No Man’s Land is. It’s a tale set during the Great War, and is part of the Finborough Theatre’s The Great War 100, a series of works to commemorate the centenary of the First World War. It displays the roughness of being part of the war from many angles: from being on the front line to friends and family of the soldiers. What’s nice is that it is clear from the writing that it doesn’t abandon its good old British humour throughout the piece, which adds even more charm.
And so David Brett and Gareth Williams enter with an interrupted start, giving the audience no warning, as they immediately and noisily set up their instruments. It’s an interesting start, as it felt as if they had no time for hassle and just wanted to get straight on with telling the story. They play what sounds like a traditional song from that era on the violin and ukulele, and play skilfully too. Although, due to the fact that the space is very small, the lyrics that were being sung seemed to be mostly lost, and it seemed to be very important information, particularly for those who are a little uneducated about the subject.
Immediately you notice that both Brett and Williams make a very good pair; they seem to ricochet off each other’s energy and complement each other well; Williams is very tall and looks like he has a warm and comforting persona coated beneath a stern exterior, whilst Brett, to compensate, has a cheeky presence whilst being dramatically shorter than Williams. Williams also has a low and well resonating voice, whilst Brett has a quick and quirky quietness in contrast.
The ‘little and large’ act seems to work well both for them and for the audience. We are supplied with these two for the whole journey which is pleasing, and also means that with the vast amount of characters the two tell the story through a large amount of multi-rolling. This unfortunately made the story very difficult to follow at some points. With Williams playing so many characters, it would have been nice to see a little more differentiation between these characters, as I found myself lost at multiple points throughout. His representation of the character of Nelly probably had the most distinguishable traits, albeit a little two-dimensional with it being a man playing a woman. Brett’s representation of some characters seemed quite simple in some cases also, and it would’ve been nice to see some raw emotion rather than being played so obviously. I think one thing that would have made this separation between characters easier would have been a singular prop or costume piece. Saying this, the minimalistic set did seem to work well, and with the use of no props except from a helmet each, they did well to play consistently by the rules of mime throughout the piece. I feel as though it would have benefited from a third person, possibly a woman to play the female parts, as this would have aided comprehension as well as adding truthfulness to the parts.
John Burrows has decided to tell the story with a mix of direct address and standard fourth wall performance, which works in some situations but unfortunately not in others. I found myself questioning who their audience was, as Williams and Brett showed their enthusiasm by telling the story to the audience almost as if we were children who were really interested in the subject. This worked some of the time, yet some moments seemed too complex for this method and therefore meant that a lot of jokes were lost, particularly to start with. A moment where this was really clear was when Brett was misinterpreting the word ‘eaten’ for the surname ‘Eaton’. This could have been spectacularly funny but I felt that there were a lot of notes missed, although it is difficult to say what exactly these were.
The story is clearly told with heartfelt truth, but I feel that it could benefit from being cleaned up a little to make the story crisp and more emotionally effective. It is important that people do understand what our relatives experienced in order for us to allow privileges such as theatre, and for stories like this to be told through performance is a good way of letting people experience this. With a little tightening, this tale could be really engaging to watch, and would really reach the heart of many.
Stony Broke in No Man’s Land is playing at Finborough Theatre until 9 June. For more information and tickets, see the Finborough Theatre website.