Scene after scene in this dramatic play depicts in graphic terms the lives (and the deaths) of ordinary men and women caught up in a war they had little idea about.
As Phil Porter’s play moves us from the idyllic England of that dreamy summer of 1914, (when men still played cricket on the village green and the band played selections from the musical comedy Flordora, to the inevitable violence of trench warfare when lives were cut short instantaneously by a sniper’s bullet or a bomb blast.
The soldiers of that time (dragged through conscriptive pressures from all walks of life) are evoked skillfully by actors who make you smile at one moment –as they joke about everything from the quality of the tinned jam – and weep for them the next as they succumb uncomplainingly to a fatal bullet wound in the head.
But the play, directed with splendid intuition by Erica Whyman, could well have gone along a one-track line depicting the lives of the men involved in trench warfare.
But here things move in a different direction and the main bulk of the play engages with the nurses who looked after the wounded and the dying at the front, often struggling to supply both comfort and medical treatment under appalling conditions.
Documentary evidence proves that in the autumn of 1914, these resolute women, whose peacetime lives left them ill-prepared for what they would face as the war dragged on, found themselves in makeshift tents within a few kilometres of enemy gunfire, many did not survive it.
Leah Whitaker’s steeliness as the Matron was a much-needed quality. This is a fine performance where a firmly-planted sense of what was correct leaves an outer shell of frigidity firmly in place.
Yet here is a woman whose impenetrable shell reveals a tiny chink of feminine warmth when an army sergeant invites her to waltz with him at a Christian celebration behind the lines.
Much has been made of the famous Christmas truce when the German soldiers sang carols, the guns stopped and British and Germans shared food and drink and played the famous game of football in no man’s land.
To realise this moment in a play teeming with fascinating incident (including a superb scene where the cartoonist Bruce Bairnsfather takes on a superior officer on the morality of suspending the temporary truce) is no mean thing.
But you find yourself swept up in a lovely, extremely touching piece of staging, which provides one of the finest pieces of emotional theatre I have seen in many a long day.
To single out individual actors would be invidious in such a talented cast, but along with Leah Witaker, praise must be given to Nick Haverson’s compassionate German officer, Gerard Horan’s Old Bill and Flora Spencer-Longhurst’s Mrs Godfrey.
Runs until January 31. For details visit www.rsc.org.uk