War Game (Bristol Old Vic)

”War Games’; on Armistice Day reminds us of a war that should not be forgotten in a well judged monologue that takes us to the heart of the conflict.

Robert Hemmings in War Game at Bristol Old Vic.
Robin Hemmings in War Game at Bristol Old Vic.
© ShotAway 2014

Visiting the theatre on Armistice Day to see a production about WWI may seem a foolish move, should you wish to keep your mascara in tact. However, risks aside, I find myself sitting in the audience of War Game, a one-man show, telling the story of Will, a young village footballer, and his team mates, who sign up one by one to the British Army with an easy victory in mind.

Beginning with actor, Robin Hemmings, encouraging the audience to join him in miming throwing a football about, I am unsure as to where this self-aware monologue is going. Stage manager, Rebecca Marie Loxton, is interestingly present on stage, along with her stage notes, iMac and Macbook, wrapped in bandages to match the set. A portable hob sits next to her, which is later used to provoke the audience’s senses with the smell of bacon frying.

Devised and directed by Toby Hulse, the performance is inspired by Michael Foreman's picture book, based on the author's four uncles who were killed in the First World War. It is because of this that, I must admit, I wasn’t expecting the introduction to the plot to be quite so light-hearted and jolly and it comes as a bit of a shock. However, the playfulness and naivety of Hemmings’ main character, Will, beautifully reflects the misplaced hope and promise that so many felt after signing up to the front line.

Just under an hour long, the plot, narrated by Hemmings’, expertly demonstrates the growing sense of doom and morbidity felt by the young men in the trenches; from their excitement of visiting France through to their steady realisation that they will most certainly not ‘be home by Christmas’. Every stage direction reflects this, from the gradual build up of Hemmings’ costume to the growing use of sound effects, to overwhelm the small auditorium.

Hemmings skilfully portrays a huge range of characters, from fresh-faced soldiers – both English and German – to authoritative long-serving army sergeants and commanding officers. A particularly well-executed scene comes with the upbeat, yet brutally honest, enactment of a wireless style advert to fight for king and country. Yet, the production could not work in the way it does without a willing audience, who obediently participate in sing-along carols and requests for applause, which are recorded and later used to create further sound effects.

Throughout the play, protagonist Will reiterates that he has ‘a very good imagination’, which is reflected in his imagined use of a football and various other small touches. The set is simple, using bandages as a backdrop and minimal props. This works well when the troops finally venture on to no mans land to enact their famous and poignant Christmas Day football match.

The last scene documents the resuming battle zone and the tragic circumstances that follow. This charming and emotional performance is thought provoking to say the least. Through the use of various techniques and technologies, the play demonstrates that historical productions don’t have to be out dated. What’s more, the intelligent portrayal of various characters, from both sides, befriending each other in the most difficult of circumstances, teaches a very good lesson. The lesson that despite our differences, ultimately we can get along; and, just like all those lost in the ‘Great War’, that is a lesson that should never be forgotten.

War Games plays in the Bristol Old Vic Studio until Saturday the 15th November.