Image Courtesy of LAPA
Last week I was lucky enough to be invited to Leyton Orient Stadium to have a chat with the cast of The Greater Game. Their rather unique rehearsal space is an old changing room in the stadium, and I was there on their 3rd day of rehearsals. I got to see a couple of scenes being rehearsed, and even at that early stage I had a lump in my throat. Trust me to show up when they are working on some of the sadder scenes.
Some of you may have caught The Greater Game when it ran at the Southwark Playhouse in 2017. This is a revised version. Chatting to the playwright, Michael Head, he told me there were things he’d wanted to change after that run, and he was taking the opportunity to fine tune the show for this new incarnation.
This run of The Greater Game is part of the WWI Centenary ‘Football Remembers’ commemorations. It can be easy to forget, or fail to realise, that footballers were among the many young men who lost their lives to that brutal war. It was a very different world to the one we live in now.
Here is a quick summary of the play from the press release (can’t write my own summary until after I’ve seen it at the press night on 1st November, this is not laziness, honest. Me? Defensive? Shut Up!)
“The Greater Game tells the true story of some of the footballers who signed up to fight in the Great War, focusing on lifelong friends Richard McFadden (James Phelps) and William Jonas (Steven Bush) who travelled from Newcastle to London to play football for Clapton Orient, before swapping England for France to ‘fight for King and Country’ – a fight neither one would survive. More than a story of football or war, The Greater Game is a story of love, friendship, sacrifice, triumph and loss.”
Present in the room for my interview/ lively group chat were the following members of the cast (important to note, not everyone got a word in):
Michael Greco who plays Billy Holmes
James Phelps who plays Richard McFadden
Paul Marlon who plays Nolan ‘Peggy’ Evans
Jack Harding who plays Fred ‘Spider’ Parker
Steven Bush who plays William Jonas
Tom Stocks who plays Jimmy Hugall
Scott Kyle who plays George Scott
Michael Head, the playwright, who also plays Herbert ‘Jumbo’ Reason
There was a wonderful energy in the room, and lots was said. I’ve tried to capture the lion’s share of it, but have had to edit down slightly. To avoid overloading you with words, I’ve decided to release 3 posts, 1 for each of the questions asked, across the next 3 days. What can I say, I work in advertising, I know far too much about our diminishing attention spans.
So here goes;
QUESTION 1: How has your perception of WWI changed as a result of working on this play?
Michael Greco: The more we’ve been working on this play, the more it has kind of hit home, we always knew it was there, and just the history of football. Because we are all big football lovers. Football started in the 19th Century… The more we’ve gone into the characters and what happened, as this is a true story, the more for me I’ve become a little bit emotional today because some of the scenes are so well written that just putting yourself into what these guys went through. They didn’t know what they were going into, they didn’t know, they thought they’d be at home by Christmas. That it’d all be over in a couple of months, everything would be fine and they’d be back playing football with their mates again. You know a few of them didn’t come back, so for me it’s quite an emotional journey, we’ve only been doing it for 3 days so
ME: Wow, gone straight in
Michael Greco: Yeah it’s going to be amazing. We’ve got two weeks of rehearsals, so when we actually do it, it is going to be incredible
James Phelps: I think that everyone just yesterday and today were saying that in researching the individual characters, because …they all existed, they were real people so it is kind of … yesterday we met with Steven Jenkins who wrote a book about everything. He’d done so much research, it’s ridiculous, down to who their families were and where they came from, all this kind of thing. After yesterday, for me, as well as everybody else, it hit home even more, the history behind the story. It’s one thing to read about it, but then when you go into detail about the actual families, where they come from, and I think, just over the last couple of days, the camaraderie that has come about, and we’ve only been in the same room for three days, it feels like we’ve been together a lot longer. And I think it speaks volumes for the script, and everyone that we’re working with to tell this story.
Tom Stocks: It doesn’t help that it’s not really been touched upon in schools either. It’s always WWII, it’s never really WWI. So to do the research that we have and to discover the stories and everything has been amazing. I personally never got to talk about it in school, it was all Hitler and the Nazis and all that. It all resulted from this war so it’s nice to learn about it more
Michael Head: It is all about the personal touch, cos these are real people and we are in touch with the actual families. I had a wonderful moment the other day when Paul Marlon, he’s playing Nolan ‘Peggy’ Evans … got a tweet from the great grandson was it?
Paul Marlon: Yes, it was the great grandson
Michael Head: And he said I’ll put you in touch with my dad, who obviously was the grandson. Someone put it wonderfully the other day, it was 100 years ago, it can feel like ancient history, but we’re only one photo album away from these people. And it does bring it home, you know. I’m lucky enough to have met the families before… when the family come down it is not 100 years ago, it’s not something that happened in a distant place, it’s people’s families you know, it’s a couple of branches back on the family tree. I think it makes it more real. And the cast have done so well in bringing these characters back to life, they’re doing it such justice that I think it’s been, its been… we’ve had a right laugh, but also it’s been quite emotional. I’ve been brought to tears myself today and I’m so hardened to it because I’ve been doing this for 8 years so I know the story inside out, I’m just desensitised to it. But today there were certain moments I absolutely choked.
Jack Harding: It has been amazing. It has been amazing to see how much the club is behind all of this. How proud they are of it as well. I was never aware of any of this sort of stuff, especially the football battalions or anything connected to it and then we go into the supporters’ club yesterday and there is a whole memorial for these players and their pictures are up and they go over to the Somme every year and celebrate in the stands and the thing about the Os, the Clapton Os, and all that kind of stuff and also when it was all announced on twitter, fans tweeted about the show saying how much they can’t wait to come and see it. And that side of it is absolutely incredible, you know the love they have for this club and how much you feel that behind you, it spurs you on, you really feel it, that emotion. You want to do them proud.
Paul Marlon: I think for me, and I hopefully speak for everyone here, for us as actors and as humans, there is a difference between learning the history and learning the characters and playing in the history. You know the last three days we feel like we’ve been in that history and that is different from going to a live reading and watching films and reading books which we’ve all done and we’ve brought that history In the last 3 days we’ve kind of put that in our back pockets which has assisted us to be able to play in history for those 3 days. The thing that has come out of it for us, when you do that, is you now are able to connect to the relationships, whether that is the relationship between the war and football, whether that is the relationship between each other as human beings, as a battalion, as people who existed, or like Michael and a few of the other guys have said, about the connection to the families, so for me it is all a bit about relationships and learning how they kind of unfold really in this piece as it unfolded for everyone else as a historic piece.
Question 2: What about your own family histories? Is WWI something that has ever come up at home? … answers to follow tomorrow. UPDATE: Part 2 is now up and you can link straight through here
And in the mean time, if you want to find out more about The Greater Game, or to book tickets, here’s a handy link https://www.waterlooeast.co.uk/the-greater-game