Army privates William (Gilbert Kyem Jnr) and Dave (Chris Anderson) are in a World War One trench somewhere on the Western Front, wondering when on earth they’re going to see some proper action instead of merely holding their positions. Lest We Forget is a little too successful in portraying the boredom of the frontline, though I suppose the audience’s patience is rewarded once there is finally an exchange of gunfire, with the consequences that come with war.
Charlotte Green’s script isn’t afraid of using the kind of derogatory terms that were hurled at black people like William James and his sister Annie (Cassandra Hercules). Meanwhile, Edith Booth (also Green) and her brother Phillip (also Anderson) have moved down to London – from where exactly I couldn’t pinpoint, except to say that Edith is concerned that the capital is “so far away” from the place they call home. Edith takes a job at a factory, working in the same team as Annie, and the pair get on well, despite their foreman, Arthur Jenkins (Anderson again: clearly a man of many talents) being not unlike the one early on in the musical Les Misérables, overseeing the work of a large group of women with threats, insults and violence.
For reasons explained in the narrative, Annie has Edith come over to her place one evening after work, and it is there that she encounters William for the first time. In short, it was a case of ‘love at first sight’. There are dangers, though: slavery may well have been abolished long before the First World War came along, but prevailing negative attitudes persisted towards black people. It is a damning indictment of modern times that, at least to an extent, some of these opinions are still held in some quarters.
This steadily paced production could have gone a little faster – for instance, it takes Bill longer to explain why he is short of breath on arrival than to have dramatized what happened. Exposition is not, however, overdone, and the production does well to overcome the challenges of portraying life in the trenches without a large ensemble to act as superior officers and fellow soldiers. A rather neat, if slightly overused, dramatic device sees the same sentences spoken in both the Booth and James’ households at the same time – sometimes the connotations are different, sometimes remarkably similar: the importance of understanding what is said within its context is intriguingly explored here.
The problem with Great War narratives is that if the men who go off to war make it back, it seems rather unrealistic, given the sheer number of casualties – on the other hand, if they don’t, it is incredibly sad to the point where melodramatic responses by those they have left behind can quite reasonably be forgiven. The beauty of tragedy in theatre, of course, lies in the curtain call: the actors take a bow, and all is well again. This production justifies its interval by continuing its story past Armistice Day and considering what happens afterwards. War may be over, but the prejudice and discrimination go on.
It’s not an easy watch, and in the second half, it did start to drag somewhat. But this is an interesting story, and with a little tightening, it could be even more impactful. A good effort from all involved, and a very worthy subject matter to put on stage.
Review by Chris Omaweng
From pre-war Britain in 1914 to the race riots of 1919 we follow the lives of William James, a black British soldier and Edith Booth, a white Northerner new to London. When William and Edith fall in love during one of Britain’s most devastating periods in history they thought their hardest battle would be surviving the war, but fighting prejudice on the home front proves almost as challenging. This November, following a research and development process last year, Home Truths will be presenting the full length production of its brand new play, Lest We Forget, at Greenwich Theatre from 8th to 10th November 2019.