By Catherine Kirkham-Sandy
How do we balance respect for the fallen with the realities of the War on Terror? This is the dilemma that Class 11B find themselves quite literally trapped in, after their supply teacher (seen only by the characters’ reactions to her in the play’s opening) finally loses her temper and locks them in their classroom. Their world shrinks to the room and each other, at the worst possible time: the day that former Head Boy Charlie, a soldier killed in action, will be repatriated to their hometown, Wootton Bassett.
James Graham’s play takes inspiration from Lord of the Flies, which is cleverly highlighted by Georgie Scott (Costume and Props), with a copy of Golding’s novel placed on top of one of the desks. Like in Lord of the Flies, the unity of the class quickly falls apart. The more sensitive and pacifistic students, such as Aimee (Emily Wilson-Knight) Lucy (Alice Rowlatt) and Joanne (Lucy Norton) clash with the incendiary Leo (Mark Ellis), with regards to how to pay respect to the armed forces. Meanwhile, Shanti (Sara Rashid) and Amid (Gabe Dentoni), a Hindu and a Muslim respectively, clash with the well-meaning but ignorant Zoe (Lydia Slack) and Rachel (Georgina De La Borda) over what it means to be a British citizen. The hot-headed Kelly (Ashleigh Thompson) and Leo clash with each other; and everyone else.
There is no weak link in the cast, with each member performing their role with measure and believability, striking the correct balance between underacting and overacting. James Graham doesn’t give Russell (Sam McNeil) Dean (Patrick Walker) Graeme (Eliot Bayley) and Jonathan (Tom Hillsdon) much characterisation to work with, but the direction of Jessy Roberts and Neil Collingham works around this. Ashleigh Thompson maintains the energy of her character, while Gabe Dentoni conveys through shifts in tone and physicality Amid’s frustration, but also the dignity and insight within that frustration.
The two standout performances however, are Mark Ellis as Leo and Rory Hutchison as Spencer. Mark Ellis nails every stage of Leo’s downward spiral, from a blustering loudmouth who lionises the military to an aggressive and vindictive obsessive with an ego like a landmine. His wielding of a rounders bat throughout most of the one hour runtime keeps the potential for violence ever present, hanging over the minds of the audience just as the pair of trainers hangs from the rafters. Rory Hutchison plays Leo’s opposite with aplomb, convincingly portraying a highly-strung and rule-abiding oddball but gradually revealing Spence’s innocence and curiosity through exquisite timing of his lines.
The play combines comedy and drama; and deftly snaps between the two. At the climax, however, the slow build of both dread and uncertainty amplified by the direction and the slowed pacing of the scene actually exceeds the quality of the script. The plot trips on the glaring hole that the characters don’t actually have to obey Leo- there’s thirteen of them, one of him. With that kind of outnumbering, they could easily take him on as a collective. The logical inconsistency is made up for by the direction and by the dramatic power of the following scene, which uses light and shadow to powerful effect, juxtaposing the innocent optimism of Spence with the trembling fury of Leo. Both characters are perfect vehicles for the play’s themes of nationalism, war and morality; and the excellent casting takes full advantage of this potential. The prod team should be proud of this achievement.
This play is relevant to every student and therefore not to be missed today or tomorrow. Every night of the play’s run there will be a collection for the Royal British Legion, so bring along a pound for the real-life Charlies of this world, whose deaths, sadly, were anything but fictional.