In Loyal Company tells the story of one Arthur Robinson, writer and actor David William Bryan’s great-uncle, who signed up as a lad and went missing on duty when his ship sank in Singapore… yet did finally return to his family and native Birkenhead. Bryan has pieced together what’s accepted in the family history – Bryan’s dad remembers his uncle – and filled in the gaps from a study of photos and military research.
Bryan’s commitment to the performance is striking from the outset. The show opens with him as Arthur (Joe for short!), running on the spot; running like mad with the loaf he’s just nicked for his family, mum and dad and five siblings. This loaf is confidently thrown out to the audience, and we relax, already assured we’re in safe hands for an hour.
With nothing but a trunk of clothes to assist him, Bryan inhabits the stage as if it were a street of houses in Birkenhead – or an ocean, or a desert, or a prisoner of war camp. Somehow he enables his audience to conjure the relevant setting for his story, to believe he’s there, not acting on a bare stage. And not only has Bryan (in collaboration with Sascha Moore) filled the gaps in Arthur’s story with an imaginative reworking of thoroughly-researched historical detail, he also makes up a credible human history for each of his pals.
You wouldn’t think there was much to say about World War Two that hasn’t already been said, and yet we do want to know more: after all, there were as many families left behind as there were people who went into battle. Soldiers, sailors and airmen live on in the stories and memories passed down through families – while families continue to ask questions about what happened then.
But this is not ‘just’ a war play. In fact, the war is context for a very human story: Arthur positively comes alive in Bryan’s rendition of his life, so that you feel like you know him, like he’s a member of your own family. There’s a palpable tension in the auditorium throughout, because we really care about what happens to Arthur next – whether he’s knocking on his intended Mary’s door with a bunch of flowers, or digging trenches in a POW camp.
On the day I went the audience was probably typical – on the middle-age to older side, probably with a family mythology of their own which includes wartime service. But I’d urge younger fringe-goers to take a punt too: if you love theatre, there’s plenty to love in this human drama. To write it off as ‘another one about the war’ would be to miss out on a great story, and a truly stunning performance.