The scene is set at Bailiol College, Oxford, in 1910. A group of exceptional young men finish their education as the shadow of war slowly approaches, including Julian (Gabriel Freilich) and Billy Grenfell (Nik Salmon), Patrick Shaw-Stewart (Alexander Knox), Ronald Poulton-Palmer (Sam Barrett), and Keith Rae (Joe Gill).
Hugh Salmon’s play focuses on the battle not just in the trenches, but also between a privileged class who think money allows them to do anything, and an aspirational class who want to improve things for those struggling. A world in which your father and your school is of paramount importance.
Using Julian Grenfell’s celebrated war poem of 1915 for its title, Into Battle has a lot going on – mental instability, adultery, an inter-class romance, and a padre, Neville Talbot (Iain Fletcher), whose war service eventually became “endless funerals”, where he saw all the bright boys of 1910 become cannon fodder.
Centre stage though is the feud between Billy Grenfell, an obnoxious oik constantly shielded by his mother, Lady Desborough (Molly Gaisford), and Keith Rae, a man of humble origins and bristling pride. There are moments which still feel very real today: especially the attitude of the rich man to the poor, who can simply be patronised and purchased.
Ellie Jones directs a play of mixed emotions, which succeeds particularly well as matters move into the trenches where men are equal in the mud and blood. Beautifully researched and staged, Into Battle brings forgotten names back to life. There are moments which could stand a little trim (Lady Desborough’s emoting over her critically injured eldest son), but other moments are deeply felt and performed.
Into Battle takes the wider political and social considerations of the turn of the 20th century and makes them as human as possible. It may be a simplified way to show the conflict that will always exist between rich and poor, the money-driven and the socially-conscious, but here it works for this small story from the Great War.
You can stream Into Battle on demand through Stream Theatre until 31 January 2022. It was staged at Greenwich Theatre through October 2021.
If you purchase a ticket by 14 November (Remembrance Sunday), a 50p donation will be made on each purchase for the Royal British Legion.
Image credit: Mark Douet