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Theatre Review Toffs at each other’s throats

Never too far from a farce this ideological enmity gets a serious meaning on the WWI battlefields of Flanders, writes MAYER WAKEFIELD

Into Battle
Greenwich Theatre

 

HUGH SALMON’S debut is a play of two distinct halves welded together by the extraordinary real-life experiences of its characters which far surpasses its billing as “the true story of a bitter feud at Oxford University.”
 
The first half is fundamentally concerned with the battle of ideas taking place in the upper echelons of British society at the beginning of the 20th century. The battle is causing ruptures in Balliol College where Etonian toffs are running riot while in the background the House of Lords have just voted to block Asquith’s “People’s Budget.”

It’s difficult to ignore the ironic relevance over a century on.

The often drunk and always irksome Billy Grenfell (Nikolas Salmon) trashes the halls while his virtuous “chief opponent” Keith Rae (Joe Gill) is establishing a Boys’ Club to bridge the social divide between the college and the slums of Oxford.  

Trapped at various points in the middle of the feud is dean and chaplain of the college Neville Talbot (Iain Fletcher), the pleasant rugby pioneer Ronnie Poulton (Sam Barrett) and Grenfell’s older brother Julian (Gabriel Freilich) whose socialist writings threaten to bring his aristocratic family into disrepute.  

As Grenfell repeatedly wrongs Rae in a series of malicious misdemeanours Talbot finds himself compromised by power as he appeals to the cantankerous Lady Desborough (Molly Gaisford), to rein her son in. With threats to his future career, the chaplain fumbles a compromise to keep both sides at bay.

But it’s not long after they leave Oxford that the university rivals find themselves on the same side on the battlefields of Flanders where the second half takes place. Divisions are put to one side as life and limb are risked in the trenches.  

As the social and class boundaries seemingly dissolve Into Battle loses some of its thrust and staggers to what feels like an inevitable but nonetheless moving conclusion.

Performances of real depth emerge after some cartoonish opening scenes, particularly from Gill and Freilich, while Ellie Jones’s crisp direction pulls together this expansive history and makes a trip to Greenwich well worthwhile.
 
Runs until October 31 2021. Box Office: (020) 8858 7755.

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