The pressures of war, patriotism and family are strikingly churned together by Théâtre Volière in the latest work from Anglo-French company Jolly Good Show as we are thrust back in time to the years leading up to and including the Battle of the Somme. Almost a century has passed since the earth encountered its first World War yet Poilu and Tommy demonstrates the timeless concepts of international struggle along with the countless people who died, and continue to die, for their country. Mick Wood elegantly infuses this nostalgic piece with bouts of beautiful French poetry, giving this production a fragile and fluctuating sense of balance.
Marie-Anne, in 1900, comes to England from Alsace with her younger brother Charles to work as a governess for her uncle William. In order to save herself from financial distress, she begins looking after her cousin Alfred, who in turn strikes up a love-hate relationship with Charles. The plot rockets forward and backward from 1900 to the Battle of the Somme where we see Alfred, now a soldier, trapped in the cellar of a townhouse while gunfire sounds outside. There, he meets a French soldier who appears startlingly familiar but proves slippery when Alfred questions him. Alfred’s memories are resuscitated as he remembers a childhood of blurred familial ties and the low thrum of impending danger.
The typical behavioural traits of British stoicism and Gallic passion are beautifully reversed in the relationship between William and Marie-Anne. Séverine Masse, as Marie-Anne, displays a resolute stillness about which the other actors spin. Her delicate and careful movements are subverted by James Peacock, playing William, whose rich bass and flighty gestures indicate worrying strength that lacks stability. Tom Grace gives Alfred a simply enchanting naivety that is further expounded by Gabriel Wood, who almost bursts with seraphic charm as his younger counterpart. At times, the scenes feel particularly static and the bilingual script requires a good understanding of French for the audience to keep up yet these obstacles are entirely vanquished by the cast’s universal respect for the intermittent poetry that descends ethereally into the plot.
Poilu and Tommy is an uncommonly detailed perspective of family life during the eve of the First World War. It boldly seizes the emotions and concerns of the post-fin de siècle household and thrusts them onto the precarious battlefield through a selection of artistically isolated poems. Mixing moments of light-hearted jocularity with great ravines of melancholy, it paints a vivid picture of sociopolitical uncertainty.
Written by Mick Wood
Directed by Natasha Wood
Performance date – Thursday 27th February 2014
Reviewed by Alex Foott
Poilu and Tommy plays at The Courtyard Theatre until 8 March 2014. Click here for tickets