And The Horse You Rode In On

Tue 19th – Sat 23rd November 2013


Hannah Greenstreet

at 21:53 on 19th Nov 2013



The First World War seems an odd subject for a student writer to pick for a play. Not because there have not been good plays set in the First World War (Frank McGuinness’s 'Observe the Sons of Ulster', for example). Nor because there are some subjects that should be ‘off limits’ to student playwrights. But because it is very hard to treat WW1, which has been the subject of so many representations, in an original but sensitive way. Although ‘And the Horse You Rode in on’ is well-constructed and well-acted, and although it steered clear of falling into the Blackadder trap, it does not express anything new.

From the sandbags and sacking that form the evocative set to the opening exchange between Dixon (Ed Elcock) and Shy (Charlie Merriman), we seem to be in recognisable WW1 territory. Maybe it was first night nerves or maybe it is the technicality of some of the language but the first scene (of three) feels like consciously ‘period’ drama and the play has a slow start because of it. There seem slightly too many characters to keep track of, although each man (all the characters are male) has his own distinctive character. The playwright, Tom Stuchfield, seems to be more interested in setting up a dramatic situation than a conventional plot. However, the news that Dixon was ‘on the rota’ came too suddenly for me to have much emotional investment with him. Stuchfield’s dialogue is often light and convincing, but the long speeches giving different perspectives on war sometimes seem heavy handed.

The shift of focus to the German soldiers in scene two is refreshing. Will Allen as Dagobert injects some pace and the scene turns into a mini-drama of dissent and brutal repression. I found the act of violence of the commander against the young soldier genuinely sickening, although the differing portrayal of Germans, as perpetrating acts of brutality upon each other, and British, as bickering, bumbling comrades, is potentially problematic.

Luckily such qualms are assuaged by the third scene, an encounter in no-man’s land between a British and a German soldier. The soldiers resist their urge to shoot one another and have a conversation. This is where the play really starts to get dramatically interesting. Henry St Leger-Davy blossoms as Spencer, a shy British soldier, who opens up to Volker, an older German man with an Italian wife, played sensitively by Chris Born. Stuchfield reveals all his characters (except perhaps the highest commanders, who are presented as uncaring) to be complex, equivocal and sympathetic and the structure of the play makes it impossible to choose between the sides. Both men are scared, immersed in war “where friends become enemies and protectors persecutors”, a situation in which each man could so easily lose his sense of self. I was disappointed, then, that the play finished when it did, as it seemed to be gesturing towards so many new questions.

'And the Horse You Rode in on' has almost all of the elements of a compelling play but, despite its conflict setting, it lacks a burning question to fire those elements.


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