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The delightful Second Soprano at King’s Head Theatre

Second Soprano  Photo by Richard Davenport
Second Soprano
Photo by Richard Davenport

What a delightful show starring Olivia Hirst and Martha Shrimpton, who, rather like the small number of cast in The 39 Steps, present before their audience a multitude of characters. At one point they demonstrate 250 wounded soldiers on the frontline in Belgium during World War One, without images projected onto a screen or anything like that. I’m itching to say how they managed it, but I must resist, and encourage you to get a ticket if you’re already interested.

Our duo, sisters on a country farm, create the sounds of agricultural life, and then of gunfire, and then later the strains and groans of the injured troops in a makeshift hospital, largely through beatboxing. It may seem a little absurd, but it does work, and very well.

The story goes at a good and lively pace. We have the courting of a young man, Henry, for one of the sisters, who always manages to see him coming and busy herself with some farm task or other, leaving the other sister to cover for her. There is a detailed account of the assassination of Prince Franz Ferdinand, which inspires Jane (Hirst) to go off to the frontline to play her part in the war effort: “To Belgium, for sisterhood.”

Whilst there are so many re-enactments of what happened in the Great War in other period dramas, plays and films (an unashamed plug here for the marvellous National Theatre production of ‘War Horse’), I’ve not come across something that uses as many styles as this show does. There are poignant numbers, but there are comedy numbers too, probably closer to music hall than Gilbert and Sullivan. The scenes rapidly yet convincingly switch between England and Belgium and back again, quite effortlessly. Well, it looks effortless…

Some of the comedy derives, as one might expect, from soldier banter, but the pair also raise laughs from the audience by making light of the inadequacies that performing their show in a studio space presents. “We really must spend more money on this,” muses Shrimpton, after both actors discover, separately, that part of the stage creaks when stood on. When a soldier falls after being shot, a staff/cast entrance door unexpectedly opens, letting in a blaze of light from the pub on the same site as the theatre. It might have irritated a lot of other actors, who may have chosen to try to ignore it, but here, Hirst makes light (as it were) of the intrusion with a marvellous improvised line, as if to encourage the shot soldier to move towards the light and enter the afterlife: “God has come for you, Johnny!

The show is billed as “a tribute to the nurses and entertainers of World War One”, and it most certainly does that with great success. This is a debut play from its writers, the aforementioned Shrimpton, Hirst, plus Ellie Routledge. It’s an excellent script and if I hadn’t known any better I would have thought these were seasoned writers who have been around for some years.

Hirst and Shrimpton were palpably enjoying themselves taking us on their journey. It may be just an hour long, but I loved it. It doesn’t need to be longer. It tells its story with not a moment wasted, and held my attention throughout. I wouldn’t change a thing.

5 Star Rating

Review by Chris Omaweng

Second Soprano
By Shrimpton Routledge
20 Jun, 22 Jun, 23 Jun, 24 Jun, 25 Jun, 29 Jun, 30 Jun, 1 Jul, 2 Jul, 3 Jul and 1 more dates
at Kings Head Theatre

Written By Martha Shrimpton & Ellie Routledge, additional writing by Olivia Hirst
Directed By: Uri Roodner

A poignant tale presented by a virtuosic comedy duo and a piano. It is 1914, and as two sisters are torn apart by historic events, an astonishing narrative unfolds. Second Soprano is the untold story of the nurses and entertainers who served in WWI. It is a stirring personal account and a tragi/comic tribute performed in a merge of Physical Comedy, Post-modern Tragedy, Music Hall tradition and Rock ‘N’ Roll.

Saturday 20th June 2015


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