Armstrong’s War*** (Finborough Theatre, 12 August 2013)

Posted: August 13, 2013 in Theatre

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com

Continuing her association with the Finborough Theatre, Canadian playwright Colleen Murphy here gives us a sneak preview, in a fully-staged production, of her new one-act play which will get its official World Premiere in Vancouver in October. Corporal Michael Armstrong (Mark Quartley) is a 21 year-old patient in the recuperation wing of an Ottawa hospital, having sustained leg injuries in Afghanistan; but his mental injuries are more serious and we first see him hiding under his hospital bed, talking to a make-believe friend and resisting all contact with outsiders. Halley Armstrong (Jessica Barden), unrelated, is a 12 year-old Pathfinder in the Girl Guides, herself wheelchair-bound following an accident, who is assigned to read from books to the soldier. She aims for a badge which she will earn after six reading sessions and the play is divided into those six meetings. At first the drama seems to be following a well-trodden path – ill-matched pair meet, feud, mellow towards each, form friendship which leads to mutual redemption – but, without an added dimension that is sufficiently different to grab our interest, it seems far too predictable and lacking in real conviction or substance. In the first three meetings, too much time is devoted to reciting passages from a novel (The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane), leaving the characters under-developed and interesting underlying themes unexplored. However, the play really takes off at around the half-way point when the writing becomes much tighter and more focussed, giving two exceptionally talented young actors the opportunity to shine. Both performances are always sensitive and occasionally explosive. What we now see is a study of the fine line between truth and fiction and a celebration of the cathartic power of written words to heal psychological wounds. As more is revealed of the characters’ stories, they come to life and we become absorbed in the different challenges that they both face. Perhaps the apostrophe in the play’s title is wrongly placed, because it is about the battles being fought by two Armstrongs to come to terms with past tragedies and to surmount the obstacles that life has placed in their way. It may be slow to get going, but ultimately it is a rewarding experience.

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