Michael Head’s new play The Greater Game tells the true story of a group of young professional footballers who sign up to fight in the First World War. Encouraged by their manager (Nick Hancock) – a former soldier – the six young men swap the football pitch for the frontline and struggle to come to terms with the emotional strains of war. It tells the story of bravery, friendship, loss and – of course – football.
The play is based on Stephen Jenkins’ book They Took The Lead and tells the story of Clapton Orient Football Club (now known as Leyton Orient), who became the first team to volunteer their players and staff to join the war effort. There were 41 people affiliated with the football club who signed up, including backroom staff and supporters. Three men were killed in battle with others suffering serious injuries.
What starts as a funny, fast paced and engaging play, quickly becomes a disjointed and frustratingly slow piece of theatre. Somewhat aptly, the production really is a game of two halves. The first is highly entertaining with its topical football references and comedic changing room banter, whilst the second is generic and at times uninteresting.
There are clever moments in Michael Head’s script, particularly for football fans. Each joke and reference is clearly thought out and the jovial teammate banter is timeless. However, when the men swap the changing room for the trenches, there is a lack of rhythm within the text. Scenes feel arduous and rambling at times with a lack of sharpness or clarity. The focus of the piece is clearly the relationship between the men, as opposed to the politics of war but the intense atmosphere of the situation could’ve been captured better.
Whether due to Tilly Vosburgh’s direction or the actors themselves, there are certain moments of emotional depth that come across as very unconvincing. Several of the characters are left undeveloped and impossible to invest in emotionally. This being said, there were some strong performances from the cast, Peter Hannah as the heroic “Mack” shows brilliant range and Gregg Baxter is engaging and truthful in his multi-rolling. Michael Head is also very funny as “Jumbo” and there are promising futures for Charlie Eales and Connor Kelly as they play the younger characters believably.
Susie Inglis’ design is simplistic but effective, featuring a wall of war recruitment posters and wooden fencing which signify the trenches. The staging is occasionally a little frustrating due to sight lines, but the use of the different levels heightens dramatic moments excellently. The lighting bizarrely shifts at unnecessary times which is distracting, whilst the scene changes could certainly be a little slicker.
Overall, The Greater Game gently touches the heartstrings but certainly doesn’t pull at them. The show lacks pace and rhythm in places which makes it drag. There is potential for a fantastic play here and the story itself is undoubtedly interesting. However, with a combination of some underwhelming acting moments, sloppy stage work and repetitive dialogue, the show remains mediocre throughout.
The Greater Game is playing at The Southwark Playhouse until October 15.
Photo: Mark Allan