Eve of War: Little Arthur’s History of England - Shelley Theatre, Boscombe
This is a gem of a play that writer/director Peter John Cooper originally penned more than 30 years ago. A meditation on the madness and futility of war, it examines the pig-headedness, prejudice and blind self-belief that drives us again and again to the brink of destruction on ever-changing battlefields.
Triumphantly received on its initial outing, just after the Falklands conflict, Eve of War has been through several incarnations. With ongoing commemorations of the 100th anniversary of the First World War and last weekend’s 70th anniversary of VE Day, the latest performance of this extraordinary one-woman play at Shelley Theatre in Boscombe seemed particularly apposite.
The drama takes place on 2nd September 1939 - literally the eve of World War Two. As Britain prepares for war with Germany, we find Nanny Cummins, desperate and distracted, trying to protect little Arthur from the hell that she knows is just around the corner.
Trisha Lewis is magnificent as this eccentric, damaged but well-meaning woman whose world essentially ended two decades earlier when she urged her sweetheart to fight for his country on the fields of Flanders.
Lonely, guilt-ridden and fortified by nips of ‘medicine’ from an ever-handy bottle of gin, she yearns for an England full of gallant heroes and a history full of ripping yarns, of good triumphing over evil. The latter tales are easily found in her battered copy of Little Arthur’s History of England.
As her own ‘Little Arthur’ stares from the nursery window at the green rolling lawns below, she tries to bury the sense of dread she feels about his future in the mad, cruel world beyond.
Lewis, alone on stage and faced with a formidable amount of dialogue, is excellent in this marathon role. After a slightly hesitant start her performance became a tour de force as she drew nuance and emotion from Cooper’s searchingly intelligent script. The sense of time and place was enhanced by Annette Sumption’s fine set. In Nanny Cummins we see a deeply vulnerable woman, tormented by demons that have driven her to the edge of madness. One of a generation of childless grieving spinsters, she seeks solace in the world of the nursery.
Rooted in the Edwardian era of her youth, she tells Arthur it is his duty to grow into a big strong man - a goal that will only be achieved by eating his greens, washing behind his ears and getting plenty of exercise. Woe betide him if he doesn’t heed her warnings though. Each minor transgression - sucking his thumb, forgetting his vest, not eating his breakfast - brings a cheery reminder of a series of bogeymen waiting to cut off his fingers, slice off his eyelids or confine him to life in a bath chair. The poor child, whose toys appear to consist largely of guns, swords, catapults and toy soldiers, is being well-trained for the grown-up world. Why do we never learn?