Director: Gary Philpott
Starring: Jonny McClean
Written by: John Kitchen
Watching Clamber up the Crucifix at Upstairs at the Western is one of the most intense, and satisfying, theatrical experiences I’ve had in some time. Watching the sweat pour from the actor, (and there is only one) Jonny McClean’s brow, emphasises not just how physically draining the performance is, but also the energy and passion with which the whole play is infused. As McClean dashes left and right, back and forth, expertly conveying the different and distinct characters across the small stage, slowly and inexorably you forget that you’re watching a play. At the end, you feel some sympathy for the actor’s exertion: ‘surely that wasn’t just an hour? It felt like much more’.
The play opens with a brutal and mysterious moment of agony, but the explanation is deferred into the depth in the plot. Through retrospective vignettes the personal story of ‘Sparks’, the principle protagonist, is told. Although the story is essentially one in which most would be familiar (young man goes to war: doesn’t like it), the restrained way in which the stage is set and the artful use of mannerism and humour round off the sharp edges of what could have been just another oh-so sentimental Journey’s End.
Kitchen’s dialogue is knowing, witty, urbane, but authentic. In the hectic group conversations, in which McClean cunningly slips between distinct characters and ranks with confident ease, each man has a clear and concise voice: you can actually see who he is playing at the time. The character of the doctor, interviewing Sparks at the end of the war, couldn’t possibly be confused for the Sergeant, for instance.
As with all stories of the Great War, the boredom, danger and mundanity of the trenches is somewhat exaggerated. Similarly, the relationship between ‘Chalkie’ and ‘Sparks’ has to stand for the relationships of all soldiers in all trenches, all of the time. In some respects, it’s a pity that the two characters never really get a chance to step aside from the Tommy clichés, but equally, it would be difficult to imply any kind of alternate relationship in the space of just an hour.
The conversations between Sparks and his doctor, and they are conversations of a sort, gradual explore the growth and changes that caused Sparks to break down altogether. A crucified stance is a (perhaps slightly too) consistent visual metaphor, but it isn’t revealed as to what this means until far deep in the play. Sparks, as a telegraph operator, is a shattered individual in conversation with the doctor, which is simply and neatly conveyed through a pidgin of Morse-code and gesture.
Clamber up the Crucifix is a play that fits very neatly into the canon of retrospective World War One plays, with the positive and negatives that that implies, but above all it is a genuine tale of humour and individual trauma. As a technical achievement, one cannot help but be impressed. Off the Fence should be commended for their ambition!