Colleen Murphy’s new play about a 21-year-old wounded Canadian serviceman receiving regular ‘reading sessions’ from a 12-year-old girl scout while recovering in hospital, at first sight, does not seem like the kind of play you would expect to find having its world premiere at a tiny (though reputed) fringe theatre above an ex-pub on the sleepy Finborough Road.
Given that it’s by a Canadian playwright and that its subject matter relates specifically to Canada’s involvement in the Afghan conflict, one might ask, from the perspective of a largely local, British audience, what precisely does Armstrong’s War have to do with us?
However, it becomes clear that more than being a play about the effects of war, it is a play for anyone and everyone who has had to deal with a great loss in their lifetime, be they young or old, be it a loved one or close friend, a dream, or a sense of purpose, which they are fighting to regain.
Murphy’s playful yet poignant script offers us a believable and moving portrait of the developing relationship between girl scout Halley and soldier Michael that, while purely platonic, is both incredibly personal and heartfelt, as they discover that they have much more in common with one another than their last name.
It is also well paced and an ideal length, running for 90 minutes without interval, lending the sequence of episodic meetings between them a nice sense of flow. In between the dialogue sequences for Halley’s hospital visits (who will get her community service badge, at all costs) there are several dreamlike sequences in which Michael talks to his KIA partner and best friend, Robby.
Though chilling and insightful, these sections sat oddly with the rest of the play, and felt like more could have been made of them. I would also liked to have seen Halley have her own moment alone onstage as well, as this singling out of Michael seemed to imply the play is more about him than it is about her. I felt however, that it is very much about both of them together.
What makes the script truly sing is Jessica Barden and Mark Quartley’s interplay with one another; at times akin to rival siblings – that of elder brother v younger sister – at others, the closest of friends, a bickering couple, or even father and daughter.
The sudden changes in dynamic are also gripping to watch, such as when Michael, one moment enthusiastically reading aloud with Halley from the war stories she has brought him, suddenly launches into a tirade of verbal abuse against her when she accuses him of a dishonourable act, ending with him tearing up the book (several pieces of which were flung out into the audience) and reduced to a sobbing wreck on the hospital bed.
I for one hope that this production comes back to London after its official premiere in Vancouver, as I can only imagine what such an effect this resonant, well-crafted and touching story will have when it reaches wider audiences.