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The Greater Game at Waterloo East Theatre | Review

The Greater Game
The Greater Game

The Greater Game combines two things that some regard with reverence – soldiers who served their country, and football. By football, of course, this show means ‘association football’ (one is tempted to add ‘accept no substitutes’, but it is rare these days to have a football match without at least one player being subbed at some point), and the play, in its early scenes, is keen to point out, with subtlety, how different things were just over a hundred years ago.

Besides the usual acknowledgements about how much more, even adjusting for inflation, footballers are paid in the modern era, the show goes as far as lampooning the use of ‘VAR’ (for the uninitiated, like me, ‘video assistant referees’). There’s the usual dressing room banter, and given the outbreak of the Great War, it perhaps seemed inevitable that the joviality of the first half wasn’t going to last all the way through the second. Except, in a way, it did: 41 footballers and members of staff of Clapton Orient (as Leyton Orient were then known) signed up en masse to help the war effort.

Even in the 1910s, there were transfers of players between clubs in different parts of the country – despite being a London club, a range of accents could be heard in the dressing room, where a considerable amount of dialogue takes place. It’s a while before any frontline action is seen in the play, which allows the audience to get to know the characters reasonably well. To coin a phrase, the devil is in the detail, and the play is deep enough to show insights into life at home, away from the playing field. So, for example, Mary Jane Jonas (Victoria Gibson), wife of William (Steven Bush), misses the home comforts of the North East, struggling to adjust to London life.

A ball is passed around on regular occasions (and always ‘passed’ – the size of the performance space did not really facilitate ‘shooting’). This did not, thankfully, prove distracting to the dialogue, which, amongst other things, questions what war actually achieves. It should be remembered that these characters – actual players with birth and death years listed in the show’s programme – are not speaking with the benefit of hindsight, and therefore had no idea when World War One would end.

It’s a strongly emotive subject matter, and the storyline is commendable, particularly when it becomes clear that not everyone from the football club will return alive. Those that do survive, without giving everything away, are more often than not scarred both physically and psychologically: one of them, Jimmy Hugall (Tom Stocks), goes from battlefield to home and back several times, each time having sustained an injury requiring hospital treatment. And the sense of family and community in a football club like this one is very much evident. While many were informed of the passing of a loved one by way of a brief telegram, the team’s manager Billy Holmes (Michael Greco) receives letters from his players, most of which run to several paragraphs. They do not, as you can imagine, always convey good news.

Not one for the faint-hearted, it’s the sort of show that’s been seen before, at a macro level at least: war is never pretty, and even the ‘winners’ of a war suffer loss. You knew that already. But speaking more specifically about The Greater Game, I wasn’t aware of the 17th Battalion Middlesex Regiment, colloquially known as ‘the Footballers’ Battalion’, before seeing this production, and it is fitting that in this centenary year of Armistice Day, a London story should be told to London audiences. Don’t just take my word for it, though: there were Chelsea Pensioners present on opening night, and they were impressed by what they saw.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

The Greater Game tells the true story of some of the footballers who signed up to fight in the Great War, focusing on lifelong friends Richard McFadden (James Phelps) and William Jonas (Steven Bush) who travelled from Newcastle to London to play football for Clapton Orient, before swapping England for France to ‘fight for King and Country’ – a fight neither one would survive. More than a story of football or war, The Greater Game is a story of love, friendship, sacrifice, triumph and loss.

Creatives
Writer Michael Head
Director Adam Morley
Assistant Director Stacey O’Shea
Design Lauren Flynn

Cast
Billy Holmes – Michael Greco
Richard McFadden – James Phelps
William Jonas – Steven Bush
Elizabeth McFadden – Helena Doughty
Mary Jane Jonas – Victoria Gibson
Fred ‘Spider’ Parker – Jack Harding
Jimmy Hugall – Tom Stocks
Nolan ‘Peggy’ Evans – Paul Marlon
George Scott – Scott Kyle
Hebert ‘Jumbo’ Reason – Michael Head

The Greater Game
Waterloo East Theatre, Brad Street, London, SE1 8TN
29 October – 24 November 2018; Tue-Sat, 19:30 (Sun, 14:00)
Running Time Approx: 120 mins plus interval

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