Review: Same Time Next War at The Cotswold Playhouse, Stroud

Same Time Next War at The Cotswold Playhouse, Stroud

Same Time Next War at The Cotswold Playhouse, Stroud - Credit: Archant

The world wars were an extraordinary period of history; but that extraordinariness didn’t stop the ordinary taking place – and on our own doorsteps, too. Katie Jarvis watches a play that explores the effects of three decades of deadly upheaval on one Stroud family

I wonder, in far-off years to come (if, indeed, there are far-off years to come) whether the Brexit stories (sorry) will be of Tusk’s taunts, Juncker’s yarks, Boris’s bull and May’s mayhem. Or if they’ll nudge the ordinariness of worry amongst all that national high drama.

Because that’s often the interesting bit. The ‘How would I feel?’ bit.

Such as when I once interviewed an elderly Minchinhampton lady about the end of the First World War. She told me, “The Armistice was signed on a Monday and my mother was doing the washing. She was so excited and so thrilled to think the war was over that she starched the woollen socks.”

I loved that. Everything about it. From the salient fact that Armistice Day was Washing Day; to the laughter – the heady hysteria of relief – over socks as stiff as a...(no, not a corpse today)...As stiff as a board.

Christopher Denys has that sort of feel; understands that the ordinariness of life doesn’t respectfully retire, like ladies after dinner, to allow the extraordinariness of world events – of madness – to smoke unimpeded.

His play, Same Time Next War (currently being performed by the excellent Brandywine Theatre Company at the Cotswold Playhouse), not only celebrates ordinary lives from 1914-1945; it celebrates, moreover, those of Stroud.

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I loved that.

It’s meticulously researched, yet it wears its research as lightly as the frilly blouses women would sport before war swapped them for factory overalls.

And so we meet the trio-cast in their house in Stroud. It’s pre-First World War; the only shells are those of the peas Laura (Katy Sirr) is podding. The Boer War is still casting its malign shadow; but as Laura’s dad, Ben (Morgan Brind), and her husband, Joe (Robert John Temple) discuss, there’s a far greater storm-cloud gathering.

The men spout facts as to why war is growing inevitable: “It’s no good expecting women to understand.”

But what Laura grasps – “even if I haven’t got a vote” – is the sheer lunacy of what’s unfolding. That the actions of a Serbian teenager, 1400 miles away in Sarajevo, are about to have a direct effect on Stroud.

“Why should that mean men start killing each other?”

Why, indeed.

And so we move through tropes – Joe being handed a white feather by a woman in Russell Street. (The prospect of fighting is less scary than the inevitability of disapproving pub-goers walking out of the Greyhound because he has walked in.) Joe leaving his cherished job in Brimscombe Port, making engines for paddle-steamers that work the rivers of Africa and South America. Of Joe and Laura suddenly understanding that there are no words to say ‘goodbye’, as he heads off for war.

Tropes. But true, notwithstanding their trope-ism.

So instead of the Number 3 bus through Thrupp, Joe crosses the Channel and boards a London bus – yes, really – transporting soldiers to the Belgian border, the top deck converted to a pigeon loft. Joe is off to Ypres – Wipers, as the Brits call it – where the water-table is so high that the digging soldiers are soon up to their nipples; where the German machineguns are a jaunty 200 yards away. And there they are - the British troops - making grenades from cocoa tins because the real things haven’t arrived; wearing cloth caps in the absence of protective tin helmets.

Meanwhile, back home, Laura is continuing her work as a midwife, delivering the seventh baby of a woman who instantly gets out of bed to make her a cup of tea. “I didn’t much like [my husband] when he was here,” the woman prattles to Laura; “but now he’s over there, I can’t help worrying about him.”

Then, missing Joe beyond bearability, Laura takes herself off to nurse in a field hospital in France, where a misogynist of a surgeon does all he can to scare her off.

The detail is fascinating, as these three mesmerising actors (who can pack a punch with the war-time songs, too) take us through their changing lives. Trinity Hall is now a makeshift hospital with 20 beds for shredded, mangled bodies. Mr Clissold in Nailsworth has given his house over for wounded soldiers; Bingham Hall in Cirencester has been converted, too.

We move through lice as big as ladybirds; the killer flu that – just when you thought Death had retreated – steals more lives than the guns and shells ever did.

On through the Depression; desperate attempts to earn money as jobs slip like rats through trenches.

The rise of the Blackshirts; Mosley’s own visit to Stroud.

And the clown, Hitler, who begins to creep insidiously into everyday conversation. “How could you ever take him seriously?”

And then. BOOM! Round 2.

It’s a fabulous insight – this play of Christopher Denys’s – into the snapshot-life of a town. I quibble with a few details. The 1914-18 RAMC stretcher-bearers, for example, weren’t all heroes. As I was told first-hand by a relative shelled during the Somme, they had been known to take any money wounded soldiers had, whilst carrying them back to the ambulances: “I did not believe it when I heard this as camp gossip, but it proved to be true.”

But minor quibbles.

I’m not going to spoil the local facts that spill out of this fascinating, elucidating play. Go and enjoy it yourselves. You’ll learn so much - without even realising you’re being anything other than entertained.

Cotswold Playhouse, Parliament St, Stroud GL5 1LW, or by phone from 0333 666 3366.