A War of Two Halves

Aug 6 2018 | By More

★★★★★     Devastating emotion

Tynecastle Park (Venue547): Thurs 2–Sun 19 Aug 2018
Review by Hugh Simpson

The sincerity, emotional directness and beautiful staging of A War of Two Halves deserves to transcend sporting allegiances. This Is My Story and Nonsense Room’s site-specific performance does what great theatre should, making a specific time and place seem immediate and accessible.

The story of how one of the greatest ever Hearts teams joined up en masse in 1914 – while always familiar to supporters – was comparatively little known by wider Edinburgh at one time, with the Haymarket war memorial going largely unnoticed.

A scene from A War of Two Halves.

A scene from A War of Two Halves. Pic: Company

In recent years this has changed, thanks in no small part to Jack Alexander’s book McCrae’s Battalion. The square outside the Usher Hall (where the recruiting event was held) is now McCrae’s Place, and the club’s annual Remembrance Service is much more widely attended.

The various World War One anniversaries have seen the subject come up on stage, notably in the musical Farewell My Son. Paul Beeson and Tim Barrow’s play, however, deals directly with the experiences of those players who joined the Royal Scots.

Set in various locations around the Hearts ground of Tynecastle Park, the promenade performance takes the audience from the football grounds of Scotland to the killing grounds of the Somme with economy, grace and considerable emotional power.

Beeson himself alternates with Bryan Lowe in the central role of Alfie Briggs (the other actor plays Sir George McCrae). Beeson’s Briggs is a performance of rare skill, outwardly stoical but deeply felt.

crystal-clear direction

The rest of the cast – Lowe, Barrow, John Cairns, Fraser Bryson, Mark Rannoch, Tony McGeever, Terence Rae and Elspeth Turner – match this level. The script is an object lesson in how to introduce a selection of characters and make the audience involved in their fates. These men are not modern-day sporting superstars, but a bunch of young men rooted in their community and at the mercy of geopolitical forces far beyond their experience or control.

A scene from A War of Two Halves. Pic: Company

A scene from A War of Two Halves. Pic: Company

Even that title, which seems cliched and clunky at first sight, fits better as the production goes on.

Bruce Strachan’s crystal-clear direction makes very fine use of the various acting spaces around the ground. For some, a mini-tour of Tynecastle might be a selling point, but the sightseeing soon fades into the background as the storytelling takes over. In one sense, it is unfortunate the play did not happen a couple of years ago so Archie Leitch’s period-correct stand could be utilised, but the shiny new version does very well as a substitute.

There are some beautifully understated but thoroughly effective moments of pure theatre. Eve Murray’s design, Matthew Brown’s musical direction, Turner’s fiddle playing and Philip Pinsky’s exemplary sound design all contribute to a production whose raw power is undeniable.

It must be acknowledged that there is a section of the Hearts support who are slightly uncomfortable with what they see as an increasing glorification of the club’s links with the military, and there are supporters of other clubs who find the focus on the First World War distasteful.

a fitting act of remembrance

So it must be stressed that this production not only points out that other clubs’ players and fans were involved with McCrae’s Battalion, but that it is in no way a celebration of war. As well as being a fitting act of remembrance of those involved, it does not shirk from depicting the horrors involved.

While there is no explicit violence depicted, this is a very difficult watch at times, and the emotional impact on the audience is clear. There is one moment in particular from Rannoch’s Ernie Ellis that is as devastating as anything you are likely to see on stage this year.

It is extremely difficult to evaluate the impact of this production dispassionately. Full disclosure – I am a lifelong fan from a Hearts supporting family, so it is impossible to be truly impartial. The tribal nature of football, moreover, means that fans of other clubs will dismiss this play out of hand.

However, what must be said is that this is a beautifully written piece, and a production of care and heart. Anyone with any interest in football or theatre would get a great deal out of it. For Hearts fans, or anyone with an interest in the history of Edinburgh, it is simply unmissable.

Running time 1 hour 35 minutes (no interval)
Tynecastle Park (Venue 547), Gorgie Road, EH11 2NL
Thursday 2 – Sunday 19 August 2018
Daily at 1.00 pm, 3.30 pm, 6.00 pm and 8.30 pm. No performances Sat 11

NB: Eight extra dates added:
Wednesday 22, Friday 24, Sunday 26 and Monday 27 August 2018
Twice daily: 6pm and 8.30pm

Book tickets on the Fringe website: https://tickets.edfringe.com/whats-on/war-of-two-halves-1

Production website: https://www.awaroftwohalves.com
Facebook: @awaroftwohalves
Twitter: @HeartsMcCrae
Tickets also available on the Hearts website: http://www.heartsfc.co.uk/news/6789

The McCrae’s Battalion Trust: www.mccraesbattaliontrust.org.uk


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Comments (11)

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  1. Colin & Jill Clark says:

    Fantastic/moving/emotional production. Well acted, at a great setting. A must for all football/history fans!

  2. Brian Finnie says:

    Watched with a Hibs supporting friend and found it extremely poignant, highlighted by Turner’s fiddle playing. Finale in the memorial garden brought tears to my eyes.

  3. Dennis Wilson says:

    I saw this performance today and was amused and moved in equal measure. The actors lived their parts and the company made excellent use of very confined spaces around the stadium. The finish was exceptionally moving.

  4. Richard Hardy says:

    Took my wife who wasn’t aware of the Macraes story she was gripped from start to finish, amazing acting and directing with brilliant musical accompaniment, not many dry eyes in the house at the end, and that’s amongst people who know how it ends – if you see one thing at the Fringe see this – whoever you follow

  5. Suzanne Senior says:

    Loved this. Very moving and excellently staged. The characters felt very real and, as a Hearts supporter, I felt the play deepened my insight into the Club’s history. Although I knew the basic story, this brought it to life on the best way possible.

  6. Graham Mcewan says:

    Watched this performance tonight at Tynecastle Park. The acting staging were exceptional. At times you had to remind yourself that these guys are only actors and not the same men that lived through the experience. The performance draws you in and is an amazing tribute to these exceptional men.

    I have seen the huge production of the Lion King on New York broadway and didn’t think this could be surpassed. I can say to you that although the story lines are clearly worlds apart this show is far superior and worth every penny. I will remember this show for many years to come.