Review by Paul Nelson
AN EVENING at The Pleasance that must not be missed is
Forgotten Voices from the Great War, a compilation of three
plays about that awful event written by an English writer/actor
and a German.
The English writer, Miles Malleson, is no stranger to me. I saw
him on stage, and cheered, I saw him on film, and marvelled.
His plays, though, have been cocooned and kept from me until
now, and I cheer again.
The German writer, Ernst Johannsen, whose name sounds more Scandinavian
than Teutonic, fared a lot worse than Malleson, in that this particular
play was banned in the emerging Nazi Germany, presumably because
it portrays that war for primarily a country's cause, and not
a humanitarian one, is worthless and in addition, the Germans
To my mind, as a socialist, a certain person in Downing Street
ought to take notice of this.
Back to the theatrical event.
'D' Company, by Miles Malleson, is a splendid study, splendidly
directed, of men waiting to know whether or not they are going
on leave or are going to the front.
The crucible they are in is searing and gave me, as an ex-serviceman,
the heebie-jeebies, not to know what your future holds, and not
having any control of it seriously focuses your mind.
Just before the decision as to whether they are going on leave
or to the trenches, Alf learns that his brother, Tom, has been
killed in action. He also gets a letter from his wife with trivial,
but oh so important messages, such as his little boy, (Alfie),
is thriving and the baby has a cold.
The letter from his mother, who knows Tom has died, is a cry
from the heart for him not to go to the front.
The wiliness of Malleson, whose adaptations of Moliere plays
starring himself are legend, gets all this information across
by the simple ruse that Alf is virtually illiterate and his letters
are read to him by another soldier, Dennis, who is educated.
The fascination of how to reply to the letters, willingly offered
by the erudite Dennis (excellently played by Neil Ditt) to be
his scribe, provides most of the poignancy and drama in this too
short play. It is superbly acted and the direction sublime.
Brigade Exchange is a German view of futility, and because
it shows the Germans in a weak light and definitely being defeated,
was not surprisingly banned by the Germans (Nazis?) in the early
It takes place in a bunker, where there is a field telephone
exchange and the events of the war being lost are transmitted
by a series of telephone calls and the odd entrance of various
soldiers hiding from the shells that are screaming about all over
There is an explosion roughly about every three minutes and one
gets a little bemused, if not confused, as they explode.
Once again, it is a play which, as I have mentioned earlier,
when you get to the point where you can no further go, just pull
the pin and blow everything up. The play is unsatisfactory.
It is not helped by its director, who cannot it seems resist
the odd bang.
Back to Malleson. The third play, Black 'Ell, poses the
problem of a man, Harold, who has done but his duty at the front
and, having seen death and true bravery at first hand, is about
to get a citation for what he thinks is due to his comrades. This
he cannot stomach.
The play produces some beautiful performances; the parents, Mrs
Gould (Patience Tomlinson) and Mr Gould (Jeffrey Perry (quite
excellent in all three plays by the way), who are delighted he
has returned safe and is to be awarded; Ethel, the maid (Emma
Callander), who is aware she could lose her young man before they
have even had a chance at a relationship, and the effervescent
Margery Willis, gushingly portrayed by Lorna Doyle.
Unfortunately, the play, as with the immediately previous play,
once more suffers from its careless direction.
Poor Harold enters totally overwrought by his experience at the
front, and the trouble is he cannot get any more wrought.
It is a dreadful mistake to allow an otherwise excellent actor
to go to a top 'C' on his entrance and then expect him to build
on it. To be fair, the actor does it well, but in this case, his
is a lost cause.
The plays, however, do stand up to any amount of scrutiny and
I can thoroughly recommend them as a really good evening out in
the theatre. Phone for performance times, they vary alarmingly.
Forgotten Voices From the Great War.
'D' Company by Miles Malleson, Directed by Ian Talbot. WITH: Leo
Conville (Private Alf Tibbutt), Simon Spencer-Hyde (Private Tilley),
Peter Symonds (Orderly Corporal), Daniel Weyman (Private Jim Penley),
Jeffrey Perry (Corporal Charles Joyner), Neil Ditt (Private Dennis
Brigade Exchange by Ernst Johannsen (in a new version by Rob Young),
Directed by Tricia Thorns. WITH: Peter Symonds (Private Schmidt),
Neil Ditt (Private Muller), Daniel Weyman (Private Schneider),
Jeffrey Perry (Corporal), Simon Spencer-Hyde (Sergeant Major Kramer),
Leo Conville (Private Behncke), Lindsay Carr (Sedan Exchange Operator),
Neil Ditt (Lieutenant von Zitsowitz), Lorna Doyle (Hospital Operator),
Patience Tomlinson (Sister Erna), Peter Symonds ((Divisional Commander),
Simon Spencer-Hyde (Private Hinrichsen), Emma Callander (French
Prisoner), Jeffrey Perry (Private Hansen), Leo Conville (Captain
Black 'Ell by Miles Malleson, Directed by Tricia Thorns. WITH:
Patience Tomlinson (Mrs Gould), Jeffrey Perry (Mr Gould), Emma
Callander (Ethel), Peter Symonds (Colonel Fane), Lindsay Carr
(Jean), Lorna Doyle (Margery Willis), Daniel Weyman (Harold).
Designer Christopher Richardson, Lighting Designer David Lawrence,
Sound Designer Kay Basson, Produced by Graham Cowley. Presented
by Two's Company and The Pleasance Festival Theatre at The Pleasance,
Carpenters Mews, North Road, London N7. Tickets 020 7609 1800