I’m afraid that mine has to be a dissenting voice. By and large, people have been raving about this show. As always, the production of this play is brilliantly realised and I cannot fault the actors or the mis-en-scene. A lot of praise should be given to Erica Whyman for her control of the production; and special mention has to be made of Tom Piper’s design and the music of Sam Kenyon that does, at times, lift the show and grab attention. If it were just a matter of watching a telling of the story, all the production elements and acting skills are fully in place. You know you are in safe hands in terms of theatre from the moment you enter the auditorium and see an image of the hot, peaceful, dozy summer of 1914 that preceded the ghastly war. From that point of view it is a good evening in the theatre.
Also, since this is supposed to be a family show and expressly something you can take the kids to at Christmas, I have to say that the show succeeds in general on its own terms. If you are a child or adolescent being told things about the First World War for the first time, this is a reasonable entrance point and is likely to leave you with some strong images and curiosity to find out more.
In other words, this show is everything that Michael Gove, in his diatribes against Oh, What a Lovely War and also Blackadder, would have wished to see. Unfortunately, it has not got half the depth of either of those approaches; nor does it stimulate the thoughts, emotions and outrage of the waste that was World War I.
The play mostly tells a very pleasant story about how humane all the men at the front were, on both sides, and that it was possible, when confronted directly with each other, to have a truce and play football in No Man’s Land.
That is not a bad thing in itself. I like the message. But it is not material for real drama. It felt more as if the RSC was cashing in on the World War I jingoism than anything else; and though it is a skilled and at times impressive production, the script itself has too little depth, no real questioning, and a lot of extraneous sentimentality that would be heavily damned by critics if this were a Hollywood film.
We all want to feel good about The Christmas Truce – both the actual event itself and the play about it – but I fear that it left me bemused and a bit annoyed despite its many good qualities. The second half, in which you actually have the Christmas Truce enacted before your very eyes, is certainly much stronger than the set-up of the first act. The theatricality is strong and provokes your imagination. And it is good that some attention is given to the brave women who were nurses near the trenches.
But my final impression was of something verging on the trivial. Also, of course, there is a lot more to be said about what happened after Christmas of 1914 – or,indeed, about how the war started in the first place and plunged Europe into such chaos, violence and loss.
Frankly, if you really want to start thinking about World War I you are better off getting tickets for the revival of Oh, What a Lovely War that is coming back to London in January – or a box set of the final season of Blackadder. On the other hand, if what you want is a retelling of a sentimental episode from World War I that will make young people aware that there was a war one hundred years ago, maybe get their curiosity going, and not scare anyone too much – as well as showing what heroic good guys the soldiers were – then this is the show for you.