Letters from the Front
This new musical from Don O’Connor and Ollie Hennessy uses the lives of three soldiers from different countries to tell the story of the Great War. Despite the epistolary suggestion of the titles, the narrative focuses more on life off the battlefield before enlistment than on life in the trenches. The plot centres on Heinrich Breitner (Jack Murphy), a 16-year-old German determined to go to war despite his youth; Lieutenant Col Miller (Brendan Corcoran), a well-seasoned soldier who returns to the army when his son, a conscientious objector, refuses to enlist; and Willie Brennan (Ciarán Dunphy), an Irishman who signs up to fight for the Crown for the half-crown it will give him to support his family. Through each of their individual stories, we learn about the lives they will leave behind as well as their motivations: glory, tradition, economics.
Ollie Hennessy’s musical score – which has an effective sombre filmic quality – is presented in pre-recorded orchestral arrangement, although live keyboard accompaniment fleshes out 11 original songs, which provide a musical interpretation of heightened emotional moments in the production. Despite the tragic inevitability of the storyline, these songs span an admirable range of tones and styles, from the plaintive ballad, My Son, with its Jacques Brel lament, to the jaunty Sisters. There is also a terrific choral rendition of the music hall classic Dolly Gray.
Unfortunately, the staging is a disaster. A projected backdrop provides scenery for the different locations through a variety of jarringly inconsistent visual styles: black-and-white and colour photographs of country and village landscapes, sketches of formal interiors, ugly cartoon cottage drawings. The images often disappear while characters are still talking, making scene transitions messy and unclear. O’Connor, directing, fills out the large stage at the O’Reilly Theatre with a variety of antique furnishings too, heavy desks and chairs that are carried on and offby a lumbering crew of stage managers.
There is an inconsistency to the performances too, more obvious in the spoken rather than the singing parts. However, Rachel Leydon’s solos as tragic mum-to-be Eileen is worth commending, as are the stoical stiff-upper-lip Xs of Corcoran as Lieutenant Miller and Rory Moran as his Brigadier. Rebecca Storm, meanwhile, playing Frau Breitner stands out far above the others in the cast: an obvious professional in a production that strugglesto reach professional standards.
Letters from the Front runs at O’Reilly Theatre, Dublin, until Friday