"Why would I want to see another play about World War One?" asks the show pamphlet. Ross Ericson, writer and performer, considers the fatigue with the topic to be a reaction to the gilding of stories from the Great War with propagandist values like "patriotism, honour and courage". He provides a humble, funny, yet stark take on the imagined origin of "The Unknown Warrior", the anonymous soldier buried in Westminster Abbey at the end of WWI on Armistice Day.
To the show's credit, Ericson's affectionate monologues on brotherhood, trauma and loss are powerfully delivered through his approachable West Countries accent. 'Jack' recalls life in the trenches to an unseen comrade over the audience's heads without romanticising the memory of war as by military command or poetic eulogies. It's intended very much as the personal war of a working-class conscripted man that didn't end on Armistice Day. The frequent cockney-like gallows humour seems like something Spike Milligan would write, and is mostly successful in providing relief through some of the bleaker moments.
The staging has good attention to detail, with some genuine WWI-era props, and Ericson weaving them naturally into the performance, rolling cigarettes from a battered tin or grimacing at the terrible French liquor; providing much-needed texture to an otherwise very 'tell-don't-show' kind of monologue. It's great characterisation, and Ericson's portrayal of Jack's conflicting terror and British lower-class pluck feels authentic and transporting. One can almost begin to see the muddy walls of his foxhole.
It's unfortunate then that some details were left unnoticed. Ericson makes a point of taking the piss out of officers like captains, lieutenants and sergeants, yet he appears to have the triple stripes of some kind of Sergeant on his military dress and is wearing an officer's cap. (Though I'll gladly eat my research if someone more knowledgeable corrects me.) Also, while the poetry is well written and spoken, it sounds very like the kind of Kipling/Tennyson poetry that glorified sacrifice and patriotism following the Great War; not really the sort of thing a conscripted man would enjoy.
The Unknown Soldier is a thoughtfully written, designed and performed show. Other than a small costume error, nothing is askance in the excellent performance. But history is a fickle subject, and Ericson occasionally crosses the line between authenticity and mockery. He would construct the personal into "The Unknown Warrior" and give him a name and a story, which is a relatable motive, but perhaps undermines the spirit in which his burial was intended. From the inscription in Westminster itself:
"Thus are commemorated the many Multitudes who during the Great War of 1914 – 1918 gave the most that Man can give; life itself."
But I'm sure he was really some guy called Smithy who once stuck a roast duck down his trousers.