Despite claiming in a programme note that this play "was never a passion project", author, director and leading actor Tom Stuchfield's ongoing commitment to it – nearly a decade in the making – suggests otherwise. Ultimately his tenacity proves understandable, even if it takes rather too long to get to that place.
Somewhere A Gunner Fires is a World War One drama inspired by a visit to the Belgian battlefields and Stuchfield's own family history. It takes an admirably broad, multiple perspective view of the horrors of the conflict, centring on a young British soldier (Stuchfield himself, credibly channelling his great-grandfather) and his Austrian counterpart (touchingly bluff and brooding Chris Born) missing their sweethearts back home and driven to the ends of their wits by what war forces them to do.
So far, so dramatic, but Stuchfield then paints himself and his cast into a theatrical corner by having the entire company of six standing facing the audience at all times and speaking the – admittedly compelling – text at us, including large chunks of narrative. The cumulative effect of this feels more like a radio play, or the reciting of a novel than a genuine stage piece, and means that the production as a whole fails to catch dramatic fire until late in the second half, despite the authentically grim ordeals the central characters go through.
When that engagement does come though, it is worth the wait, as the two irreparably damaged couples meet unexpectedly after the war and collectively experience the healing balm afforded by beautiful live music. The final image of this quartet of broken figures tearfully communing with the each other, art, acceptance, and indeed hope itself, speaks volumes about the devastating, far-reaching personal and spiritual cost of war. It's a powerful final image to conclude a production that elsewhere is pretty short on visual interest.
Within the limitations imposed on them by the static staging, some of the actors acquit themselves impressively: Guy Clark is haunting and heartbreaking as a young British soldier whose affinity with nature is starkly at odds with his terrifying surroundings, while Olivia Hanrahan-Barnes and Julia Kass touchingly sketch a spiky burgeoning friendship between two contrasting women whose lives are blighted by the conflict. Stuchfield himself has a likeable, relatable everyman quality as Spencer, the character inspired by his own grandfather.
One wonders if there's an interval solely to give the actors' legs a break, as it unquestionably tampers with the flow of the piece. Also, the strand of the story featuring a drunk American conscript fled to Europe from a combative domestic life with his father back home, feels like a dramatic non-sequitur, in a play that could safely lose approximately 20 minutes of playing time without detriment.
Despite my reservations, this intense production ultimately proves a worthy centenary commemoration of the final British cavalry charge on the Western Front. Most importantly, it unapologetically puts the humanity front and centre in this tragic tale.