Presented by the students of Stagedoor Learning, for one night only at the Parabola Arts Centre, The Battle of Boat was a refreshing and innovative take on a piece of history we know all too well.
In a welcome departure from the majority of World War One stories, The Battle of Boat did not focus on life in the trenches but instead rooted its story firmly at home, following a group of children living in wartime Britain.
The bold and ambitious story takes us from a seemingly innocent and carefree opener: “these are the golden hours, where the choice of what we do is ours”. Through an awakening to what the war is actually like, and then the children’s steadfast determination to make a difference – even more so when one of their number, William, is recruited as a soldier, despite being underage.
Though the show was very good throughout, especially given the age of the cast, the strongest moments were consistently the large ensemble pieces. The opening number in particular set a clear, confident scene with joyful harmonies, accompanying a flurry of activity to show the busy, playful lives of this group of children. The set was used extremely creatively, with the actors building their playground from simple crates (the crates showed impeccable workmanship and consistently stole the show, caveat: they were made by my dad who is now looking for more props to make…call me).
Similar stand out moments of ensemble included a classroom scene built up with clockwork, repetitive actions, as well as a powerful moment where the children play at being soldiers in lines which orderly cut through and around each other. The strength of the ensemble lies in some inspired directing, as well as a power and intensity from all of the actors who were clearly very invested in the world and characters they had developed.
Though the show covers some very serious and heartbreaking topics, there is brilliant humour throughout. This is largely generated by ‘Beagle’, played with aplomb by Saskia Clifton. Clifton has a great sense of playfulness and comic timing, in one moment distracting characters and audience alike from the seriousness of sneaking onto an army base by ‘camel-flarging’ herself as a bush – simply repeating the word BUSH to establish the effectiveness of her disguise.
Other notable performances include Joseph Stanley as William, the young man accepted into the army despite being underage, Sean Kilty as Gripper, the playground bully and Izzy Robinson as Frances, William’s intelligent and heartbroken sister. Stanley and Robinson’s duet, whilst one is in the trenches and the other safe at home, was incredibly moving, showing them both forced to mature beyond their years because of events far, far bigger than they can imagine. Meanwhile, Kilty’s Gripper was deeply menacing, showing that war was not the only danger for the children. In fact, it is revealed that Gripper’s malice is driven by his father’s ‘cowardice’; his family have been shamed by the community because his father is a conscientious objector. This motivation elicits sympathy for his character and demonstrates how the war is impacting on all the children’s lives in more than just the obvious ways.
Though troubled with some technical issues, The Battle of Boat was a captivating story, giving an insight into a lesser known aspect of our history. It was invested with power, emotion and some extremely talented vocals by the whole ensemble, who received a well-deserved standing ovation.
Find out more about Stagedoor Learning: stagedoorlearning.org.uk