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saints and sinners of the stage and screen

In Soft Wings
Tristan Bates Theatre
30th July 2015


The ensemble of In Soft Wings

Photography © Sandeep Santhosh

With great power, comes great responsibility. However, those with great power don't always realise this, at least not immediately. Billy Grenfell (Nikolas Salmon) has it all. The son of Lord Willy Desborough (Andrew McDonald) and Lady Ettie Desborough (Mufrida Hayes), he has a place at Oxford, connections in high places and more money than you can shake a stick at. Billy's sense of self-entitlement and snobbery leads him to clash with fellow student, Keith Rae (Edward Tidy), who was homeschooled rather than Eton-educated (oh, the shame, the shame) and devotes his free time to helping run a youth club for local underprivileged boys.

Billy and his friends Patrick Shaw Stewart (Jacob Jackson), Edward Horner (Joseph Blunt) and Charles Lister (Calum Mould) taunt Keith and his friends Robert Brandt (James Ruskin), Ronnie Poulton (Felix Guyer) and Stephen Reiss (Varun Sharma). There's animosity on both sides, and things come to a head when Billy is found trashing Keith's room. When Keith graduates first, they hope never to cross paths again. However, as fate would have it, they both end up serving in the prestigious Rifle Brigade. They may hate each other, but there's a greater threat out there, and squabbling on the battlefield not only has the potential to put their lives in jeopardy, but those of their comrades. Finally, they have to find some common ground. There's nothing like being in a life or death situation to focus the mind.

It may seem incredible, but new playwright Hugh Salmon's script is loosely based on a true story. There actually were a pair of Oxford students who fell out at university and did their duty in the same regiment, falling in combat on the same day. The heart of Salmon's play is the relationship between the two men, with Billy originally painted as an obnoxious bully and Keith nothing short of a saint, which is an unnecessary contrast. However, this doesn't harm the growth in their relationship; as they start to see the other as another human being with the same redeeming qualities, it's genuinely moving. They turn from caricatures into men.

The arrival of the Prince of Wales (James Moxon-Browne), Churchill (Sam Sugarman) and Asquith (Mark Desmond) at the Grenfell's house stresses how privileged and well-connected the family are, and gives the play some historical context. However, these scenes don't add very much and are uncomfortably overblown, making fun of both the monarchy and the government. Scene changes are tight throughout, with the pacing often slightly too quick - rather than rush to fit everything in, interactions like these could be easily cut. They don't show Billy's character development and that's the arc which keeps us gripped.

Publicity image for In Soft Wings

Photography © Sandeep Santhosh

A collegiate university is a sort of bubble, caught in a time warp, but even so, the repeated use of Latin in early 19-something feels somewhat contrived. This is never more so than when Patrick attempts to woo his friend Billy's mother with some awkward but earnest Roman dialogue. Using a woman to double up for both a female and male part initially seems an odd choice, but Emily Arden wins us over as endearingly mouthy but well-intentioned youth Perkins, and Salmon writes in a witty in-joke to reference this. Parts of the writing could admittedly do with cutting or tweaking, but there's so much potential. It takes a genuine rough diamond to make us cringe in places and yet still compel us to shed a tear in the more affecting scenes. With some more time polishing In Soft Wings, this is a production which could truly shine.

Some of the scenes aren't quite framed perfectly, but this is a scratch performance, and director Tatty Hennessy does more than enough to illustrate what her vision would be, with a bit more time and money. There's certainly nothing you wouldn't forgive a work-in-progress piece, and she helps drive the sentiment in Billy and Keith's later interactions. Although the main focus is on those two men, Billy's brother Julian (Harry Feltham) also reveals the toll of war by reciting one of the real Julian's war poems, Into Battle. Feltham is one of the more accomplished actors, and delivers those lines with a chilling poignancy.

There are some changes to be made, but I'd like to see In Soft Wings get another, longer run. There's a balance to be struck between the comedy and tragedy of this tale, but the emotional core of the story is beautiful. A century on from when a generation of Oxford's finest fell on foreign soil together, the brutality and futility of war remains something we must never forget, along with the fleetingness of life. If this be the last song you shall sing, sing well, for you may not sing another.

In Soft Wings ran on 30th July 2015 at the Tristan Bates Theatre.

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