Theater Review: ‘Our Friends the Enemy’

Truce on the Western Front
December 12, 2015 Updated: December 15, 2015
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NEW YORK—One man, actor Alex Gwyther, who also wrote the piece, presents episodes that occurred during World War I, which have come to be known as The Christmas Truce.

In 1914, for a brief time there were actually episodes during which opposing soldiers, the British and the Germans, came together in friendship on the battlefield.

Alex Gwyther wrote and stars in
Alex Gwyther wrote and stars in “Our Friends the Enemy.” (Pamela Raith)

The protagonist, called James, first creates the picture of a group of his buddies. They huddle in the unwelcoming trenches, complaining of the wet and cold; they welcome packages from home. One says, “I’ve never appreciated wool socks so much,” in reference to a pair his mom had knitted for him and sent from England. A rasher of bacon becomes a feast. Letters from home urge them to return home safely.

One of their number, James’s school buddy, George, goes missing.

One day James stumbles upon a small group of German soldiers in a barn. He raises his gun to shoot, then relents as one cries out in perfect English: “I was a taxi driver in Birmingham!”  They all chat together excitedly and promise to meet again, bringing gifts.

The gifts seem meager but are so welcome in the environment—cigarettes, even sketches that some have drawn.

Soon they must return to their job: making war.

The play makes one consider the awful mess the world is in today.

These episodes take place in different, unconnected areas. It’s almost as if word has somehow spread that they are friends under the skin. One night a German crawls toward their trench. He shouts, “Wait!” as they’re about to fire. The German then deposits a tiny Christmas tree at the edge of the trench and crawls back to his side of the battlefield.

As it is Christmastime, the Germans sing Christmas carols and wish their British enemies a merry Christmas. A group of Germans approaches and offers cigarettes. The uniforms of gray and khaki seem to blend into one. Barriers briefly vanish.

There’s an amusing episode when both sides encounter a wild hare. It’s to be their dinner! Each side offers chase, but the wily hare ultimately outsmarts them, dashing to safety down a long, wet trench.

In another incident, some Germans advise a British soldier on how to conquer the lice that are devouring him.

Alex Gwyther as Private James Boyce in a play about the famous World War I truce at Christmas 1914.  (Pamela Raith)
Alex Gwyther as Private James Boyce in a play about the famous World War I truce at Christmas in 1914. (Pamela Raith)

A group of British and German soldiers put on skits to entertain their buddies. A German, attired in a pink blouse and black skirt, flounces about, flirting with his English counterpart, who mimes the role of an English gentleman.

George’s body is later found, face down in a muddy trench. The Germans help bury him.

The play makes one consider the awful mess the world is in today. Will we ever all come together?

In direct contrast to the hope the play has offered, one is shaken into reality again when certain facts come out at the talkback I attended at the end of the performance: Many of the British were executed for their part in the truce. Their superiors felt it necessary to remind them all that war is a serious business; rules must be followed.

It is sad and chastening.

Under Tom O’Brien’s direction, aided by production design (James Hirst), lighting design (David Goldstein), UK lighting design (Derek Anderson), sound design (David Gregory), and music composition (Darren Clark), performer Alex Gwyther, wearing a World War I soldier’s uniform, brings this project to life, infusing it with a special kind of importance. 

The production was brought over from England, and this run represents its debut in the United States.

‘Our Friends the Enemy’
Lion Theatre
410 W. 42nd St. (Theatre Row)
Tickets: 212-239-6200, or Telecharge.com
Running Time: 1 hour, 5 minutes (no intermission)
Closes: Dec. 20

Diana Barth writes for various publications, including her own New Millennium, an arts publication. She may be contacted at DiaBarth@juno.com