“Impactful and thought-provoking, this production will make you laugh as well as cry.”
Between the haunting piano accompaniment played at the most poignant exchanges of dialogue and the chilling battle scenes, this provocative portrayal of Walter Tull – the first Black British combat officer to serve in the Army and former football legend – tells a heartfelt story of comradery and bravery. But, as a tribute to Tull, I’m left with unanswered questions that I’m unsure whether to direct at possible holes in the script or at times, the rigid exterior presented by leading man, Oraine Johnson (The Tin Violin, Sorry! No coloured, No Irish, No Dogs).
March 1918 is where the play begins, four years after Second Lieutenant Tull enlisted, or ‘Leftenant’ as he’s known by Private Joseph Harper, the young and fearful soldier through whom the story is engagingly narrated. Played by Kaine Barr (BBC Doctors, Waterloo Road) Harper’s boyish innocence gushes on stage so the audience warm to him quickly, and it’s through a series of letters sent home to his mother that we learn of his unspoken fears and idolation towards his superior, former Spurs and Northampton star, with whom he forms a heartfelt friendship with.
From the moment Johnson stepped out from the wings he established himself as Tull with a distinguished manner and each line projected with middle-class vigour, in comedic contrast to his co-star’s brash Midlands accent. Maintaining this level of reserve though somehow got in the way of communicating Tull’s bitterness towards the racism he’d experienced both on the pitch and in the army, moreover the pain at having had a fragmented childhood. When spoken between characters the emotive dialogue triggers a sadness in me but, those were only small glimpses, at which point I wish the script had opened up to explore those key events in Tull’s life for us to comprehend.
Detailed, yet minimal, the set evokes a depressing wartime trench with dusty sandbags lay like barricades at different corners of the stage. Handwritten letters are wedged between them near a makeshift bed and under the hazy spotlights, I have time to observe the other relics of world war one. Silent national archive footage complements the performances, also acting as an ominous reminder of an unhappy ending.
Impactful and thought-provoking, this production will make you laugh as well as cry, but what I’m not convinced about is whether Gazebo Theatre have done enough to show the gravity of triumph in Walter Tull’s story. In light of Black History Month, it didn’t convey a strong enough sense of race to me. Perhaps the irony is that it’s not supposed to, and in that case, I completely missed the point.
*The Hallowed Turf debuts at The Drum, Birmingham on October 16
Visit www.the-drum.org.uk to book tickets.