IN 1910, a battle of wills was taking place at Balliol College, Oxford. A group of Eton schoolboys — wealthy, loutish, and hedonistic — had a lifestyle in which they had scant regard for anything but their own excess. Studying alongside them was a group of socially conscious Christians, whose chief concern was the welfare of children who were growing up in scandalous poverty on the east side of the city.
In Into Battle, the playwright Hugh Salmon, making his debut, shows the tensions between them by focusing on Keith Rae, who founded a boys’ club in a slum area (Joe Gill, impressively conveying goodness without sappiness), and the old Etonian Billy Grenfell (Nikolas Salmon, equally adept as his deeply unsympathetic character wins people over with charm). The feud culminates in Grenfell’s wrecking Rae’s room and possessions, knowing that he can brush it aside effortlessly by paying for their replacement.
The writing of the first half of this true story is rather heavy-handed. Are we meant to see parallels with our own national leadership? Of course we are. There is nothing subtle about that. A Dickensian urchin is made to convey the suffering of an entire underclass, while locating the play in its historical context is a newspaper vendor yelling headlines — a cliché that makes your heart sink.
The drama picks up in the second half, which shows what happens to those relationships when all the main characters find themselves in France during the First World War. At this point, surprises enliven the action. Unlikely bonds form as the tragic conclusion becomes inevitable. Ellen Cairns’s set of broken arches and scattered books begins to make powerful sense. And Ellie Jones’s tense direction of the war scenes justifies such a great deal of detailed research in finding its way on to a stage rather than into an essay.
At the moral heart of the play is the Revd Neville Talbot, the chaplain of the college who was later awarded the Military Cross as a wartime padre. In real life, his reputation was as a commanding and larger-than-life figure: a loving, funny, sweary inspiration. He is played by Iain Fletcher (bearing an uncanny likeness to Sir Keir Starmer), but the lines that he is given reveal nothing of the charisma that we are told he has (bearing an uncanny likeness to . . . well . . .). The only moment at which he is allowed to give a Christian perspective is when he is asked at the height of the fighting what he thinks Jesus would have done when confronted with the horror. He replies: “I believe he would have been a regimental stretcher-bearer.”
It is a story of hope that toxic, youthful masculinity can change in a context of understanding and purpose. And it is a decent debut. I found it interesting from beginning to end. But, truth to tell, I wasn’t moved until the very last line of dialogue.
Into Battle continues at the Greenwich Theatre, Crooms Hill, London SE10, until 31 October. Tickets from wwwgreenwichtheatre.org.uk or 020 8858 7755.