A play about the legendary football match between British and German troops on Christmas Day 1914, coinciding with Remembrance Day, should be both moving and timely. Unfortunately, Profugo Arts’ Don’t Shoot the Mesitersinger is frustratingly hollow.
We meet British and German troops preparing for Christmas in the trenches. What follows is a series of unofficial ceasefires along the Western Front. The German soldiers begin to sing Christmas carols, the British troops respond and gradually the two groups of soldiers venture into No Man’s Land, where they exchange food, gifts and, famously, play football .
The game is less about football and more about human behavior. Three actors play both British and German soldiers, swapping white and red vests to show which side they are portrayed on. It’s a simple yet thoughtful way to show the similarities between the sides; it’s just young men fighting. Alfie Noble shows the greatest differentiation between the affable Joe and the elegant Hans. Joseph Aylward is thoughtful as Arthur and stiffer as Sixtus. Finn Pile is likeable to both Ernie and Walther, but is often very hard to hear.
However, it is the writing that is the problem here. The young actors do their best with a turgid, overly long script and slow direction. Writer Graham Hill has a wealth of material at his fingertips, but there’s little exploration or depth to the play’s storylines and as a result most of the characters come across as frustrating and one-dimensional.
Female voices appear as symbolic caricatures; Walther’s girlfriend, Eva, has a strange story where she becomes increasingly sexually aroused while writing to him and visits from the prostitute Walther seem to be taken from a Benny Hill sketch. Even the potentially fascinating and real-life role of journalist Dorothy Lawrence, who disguises herself as a soldier to report on the realities of life in the trenches, is woefully underdeveloped.
The harsh reality of life in the trenches is not reflected: it is mentioned that snow is coming, but the only person who seems to feel the horror of the conditions is Dorothy. A long-running joke about a slowly ticking watch should be a central and poignant theme, but seems both too obvious and awkward in its exposition. The football game itself relies solely on an actor in goal and Dorothy Lawrence providing John Motson-style commentary. It might be funny, but it’s not.
The singing competition between the two camps almost slips into the absurd; the UK side performing a version of East 17’s “Stay Another Day”, accompanied by the female cast members twirling around as backing dancers.
There’s a great idea in this piece somewhere, but it’s clearly a work in progress.
Don’t Shoot the Meistersinger is in the Studio at the New Wimbledon Theater until November 12
Photo credit: New Wimbledon Theater