Before the start of Reflections, on sale in the Dining Hall of Magdalen College School were copies of Mr Brownrigg's Boys, an account by David Bebbington, a teacher at the School, of its Headmaster and 50 of his pupils who died in World War 1. One of them, army doctor Noel Chavasse, was the bravest of the brave, having won the MC and then, incredibly, two VCs, the only person to do so in that terrible War. Having been perhaps both sobered and inspired by the little display around copies of the book, we made our way in driving rain and half a gale – even the Weather Gods were casting their judgement upon this week of commemoration – to the 'Big School' auditorium: high, wide and handsome.
Reflections is a drama that's been largely scripted and thoroughly researched
by 14 Sixth Form history students with the help of the small but excellent
Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum at
Then, with a rush of feet and blare of sound, the elongated, narrow platform set at a T with the conventional stage was at an instant crammed with 30+ merry civilians cavorting and rejoicing at the expectation of battle as they sang It's War!, a jaunty, honky-tonk number, one of Alex Thomas' four terrific songs punctuating the drama. This was the moment we knew we were in for something special.
The idea behind the platform, its construction and decoration with straw, baskets, crates, milk churns, sandbags and even an authentic-looking field telephone, all betokened exceptional design imagination and attention to detail for which we have to thank design team Rachael Twyford, Seb Dows-Miller and Ollie Kariel. Director Alex Thomas cleverly switched the focus of action yo-yoing between platform and stage as it ebbed and flowed. He, together with Jake Adams on lighting, conjured up a super-vivid depiction of the moment where mustard gas billows though the space under a bilious green light. I take my hat off to the costume designers (also Twyford) – dozens of individual designs full of period style and colour.
Ivor Novello, songwriter, actor and successful composer of musicals began to assume a leading rôle, first in writing his Keep the Home Fires Burning (for my money the best of all the familiar WWI songs; here strongly sung by Bella Crew, then taken up in an emotional chorus by the company), then in receipt of a white feather, then in war service before arriving at 1919 in an office job. Often at the piano, James Gant made a big impact as Novello: suave, sympathetic and with a fine singing voice; this was a star performance.
The third of the quartet of fine lead players was Georgia Laird, holder of a grade 8 in Musical Theatre and soloist for the old Edith Piaf number La Foule. She managed to fill those big shoes with aplomb (and a nice French accent). Alex Ansdell as the soldier Aussie Stone also made a considerable impact, full of bounce and undaunted by catastrophe all around him.
The action proceeded via soldiers attacking, then struggling to make the field hospital as old WW1 newsreel footage played on the stage backing screen, the continuity between scenes always snappy. General Haig's 'Backs to the Wall' order of the day from April 1918 rang out, succeeded by Vera Brittain's The German Ward oration. Alex Thomas' delightful ballad The Only Way I Know lit up the second half (Georgia Laird and James Gant combining winningly), before the rousing Civvy Street with a bit of soft shoe shuffle (choreographer Mezze Eade) atop the platform. In the chorus scenes, among a host of energetic actors I especially noticed Bindi Batsaikhan, whose reaction acting and extra eagerness suggest a possible star in the making.
Such were the scope and quality of these Reflections
that, while it's possible - just about - to imagine school drama of
comparable standard, it's all but impossible to conceive of work of a higher
standard. The large-scale