Review: The Greater Game
Image courtesy Stephen Jenkins and Peter Kitchen
Billy Holmes - Michael Greco
Richard McFadden - James Phelps
Elizabeth McFadden - Helena Doughty
William Jonas - Steven Bush
Mary Jane Jonas - Victoria Gibson
George Scott - Scott Kyle
Fred 'Spider' Parker - Jack Harding
Nolan 'Peggy' Evans - Paul Marlon
Jimmy Hugall - Tom Stocks
Herbert 'Jumbo' Reason - Michael Head
Based on the book They Took The Lead by Stephen Jenkins, The Greater Game tells the true story of the 42 men from Clapton Orient who signed up En Masse to fight in the great war focusing on the bond of two life long friends Richard MacFadden and William Jonas who met near Newcastle aged 7 before moving to London to play football then enlisting to fight in the Battle Of The Somme with tragic consequences.
More than a story of war or football The Greater Game is a 'Touching and Emotional' (The Stage) play that covers all aspects of human life and is 'A rollercoaster of emotions that is as funny and it is moving, a must watch' (MTM review).
Starring James Phelps (Harry Potter) as Richard MacFadden, The Greater Game promises to make you laugh and cry in equal measure as it tells the amazing true story of the men and women who sacrificed everything 'for King and Country' and is a production 'that had audiences in tears as they hugged each other at the end of a emotional and powerful play'.
Sally RedmanPerformance date: Thursday 1 November 2018
The Greater Game tells the true story of a group of footballers who fought in 'The Great War'.
As someone who knows nothing about the war, is not really a fan of period plays and has a passionate hatred for football, where do I start?
Well, let's start at the end ... after the play, I was fortunate enough to speak with a soldier, who is still in active service, and his wife ...
Me: So what did you think of the play?
Soldier: It was spot on, brought so many things home and got me in many ways.
Wife: What I thought was amazing was how the wives where involved.
So many plays and films ignore the female element or, if they do include them, they are afterthoughts or 2D characters.
Me: I think the writer writes very well for women.
Wife: Indeed - they were so accurate I felt like it was me talking on stage!
Me: What would you rate it out of five?
Soldier: Ten ... you are being harsh.
The soldier then went on to quote about ten lines/ moments from the play that really stood out for him.
The fact this play resonated with him to the point he could quote it word for word speaks far more about this play than any review.
The first act opens in a melee of action with characters coming thick and fast as jokes and 'banter' are liberally thrown about.
We instantly warm to each character and get the impression that this is a team that could go to war and fight for each other.
However, the funny opening half hour does get darker ... a lot darker.
Adam Morley directs this show beautifully and some of the wonderful touches and imagery used really endear us to these men and women, but also sets the audience up for a fall.
There are some wonderful comic moments.
Michael Head really shines as Jumbo the lazy but lovable dad who will do anything to get out of running, and Paul Marlon as the 'Cockney rebel without a cause' has wonderful comic timing.
All of the cast are great and the first half is a real team effort, with the only slight blot being Tom Stocks' injury-prone Goalkeeper who was rather unbearable, but then I am being picky.
The wives, played with class by Helena Doughty and Victoria Gibson, give the drama another dimension ensuring this well-rounded play is not just about 'lads, lads, lads and banter', but a real and touching account.
Helena Doughty also plays a young lad with a real charm and innocence who enters just before the end of act one, which is when the proverbial really hits the fan!
At half time, I had a feeling this would be 'a play of two halves' (oh yes, football terms as well) and boy was I right.
The second act opens in the front lines with fast-paced action where, one by one, men fall and the emotional stakes are risen.
James Phelps and Steven Bush play Mac and Jonas respectively and a scene between the two really hits home.
You now see that once the flag waving has stopped and the pomp and pageantry is over we have men dealing with the brutal reality of war, and both give stellar performances, making this scene one I shall remember for a long time.
This is followed by a scene between joker Peggy (Marlon) and the hard man George Scott (played brilliantly by Scott Kyle) which is beautifully haunting and put me and many of the audience on edge almost to the point of being uncomfortable.
This is not for the faint-hearted, but is drama in it's most purest form and the most moving and powerful scene I have ever watched in terms of both writing and execution.
We then see the letters home and life back in 'normality' where Michael Greco gives an exceptional performance as the manager who didn't make the front.
This warm and subtle performance is as touching and moving as any death scene, with the actor showing great ability to do so much with so little, and some of his moments are painfully tearful.
Jack Harding, who plays club captain Fred Spider Parker, adds to this with the reality on the front in a stark contrast to how life must of been and how it was portrayed back home.
Harding again gives another stand-out performance and his final few scenes really do leave you broken.
By the end, I was an emotional wreck, but also felt uplifted.
The Greater Game is perfectly balanced and directed, so for every hard-hitting moment there is much comic relief.
The best example of this is a scene between Jumbo (Head) returning to his son (the fantastic Gibson).
Again, Head shines as we see him broken by the war - and just as a tear roles down your face, a great one-liner comes out to make you laugh out loud.
This happens throughout a gut-wrenching second act
So to 'post-match' comments ...
The Greater Game has an amazing squad whose performances are all gloriously match-worthy, and manager Adam Morley directs with enormous skill to give the play edge, and writer Michael Head balances light with dark perfectly to make an ugly 'game' a beautiful play.
The results will leave you laughing till you cry and crying till you laugh.
This show is a winner for sure - if you don't believe me then ask the Chelsea pensioner in tears in the third row, or the soldier and his wife.
Sally interviewed the cast and creative team during rehearsals - read her report and more background about the play here.
Links and related content
ActDrop listing for Waterloo East Theatre
Our show listing for The Greater Game
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