Armstrong’s War

A 12 year-old girl forms an unlikely but rewarding friendship with a troubled war vet in this new play at the Finborough Theatre

Not exactly an original theme, but Canadian Colleen Murphy, award-winning former playwright in residence at the Finborough, takes the trope and places it in the topical setting of the war in Afghanistan, creating a fresh perspective in Armstrong’s War. With the mesmerising performances of Jessica Barden as Halley and Mark Quartley as Michael, this is a thought-provoking theatrical gem of a production.

Halley Armstrong, a 12-going-on-40 year old Girl Guide, has opted to volunteer at a rehabilitation hospital to read to young Canadian soldier, Michael Armstrong, in order to be awarded her community service badge. Having chosen Michael because of their matching surnames, Halley is determined to succeed in her mission to get Michael to accept her voluntary role.

As she reads The Red Badge of Courage to him, a novel about the American Civil War, Michael’s initial misgivings gradually fall away, the story resonating with his own experiences in Afghanistan, and the pair gradually develop a relationship in which they discover common bonds.

The themes of the play are age old – survivor guilt, pacts between soldiers, the right to die – but Murphy explores them with sensitivity from two very different viewpoints.

Jessica Barden is extraordinarily convincing as the 12-year-old Halley, with all her childlike enthusiasm hiding a vulnerability from deep emotional scars. Mark Quartley brilliantly takes on the mantle of the physically and mentally battle-traumatised Michael. Their growing friendship is at times hard to watch as truths are revealed, but ultimately they find a mutual hope for the future. There’s rehabilitation for both of them.

Armstrong’s War is a fairly static piece, which is inevitable in the small space, with the set (from As Is, the Finborough’s other current hit) dominated by Michael’s hospital bed. And it’s very wordy; if anything there’s a little too much reading extracts from books. But the lack of physical action becomes barely noticeable in the cut and thrust between the two characters.

The play will have its ‘official’ world premiere in October 2013 at the renowned Arts Club Theatre in Vancouver. Catch it before it heads across the pond.

Carole Gordon

Armstrong’s War runs on Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays at the Finborough until 27 August