Review by Kathleen Campion

Alex Gwyther as Private James Boyce by Pamela Raith_01This Christmas Season spend an hour on 42nd St. enveloped in the Christmas Truce – that spontaneous break from war that bloomed one night all along the Western Front in the early days of WW I.  From the misery of the muddy trenches, carols were sung, trees sprouted candle stubs, cigarettes and small gifts were exchanged among the English and German troops.

In Britain today, and perhaps in Germany, the Christmas Truce is a cherished tale of people being better than they thought they were.  Children grow up on it, princes revere it; of course some think it was nothing more than “Tommy” and “Fritz” enjoying an unlikely football scrimmage under a winter moon in the dark of war.

Alex Gwyther’s masterful recasting of the long-ago tale is haunting and beautiful.  It started as a poem, and now Our Friends The Enemy is a one-act performed by the writer.  Gwyther’s poetic monologue, and sometimes dialogue—as he gives us a flight of young warriors to consider—is lofty in language but elemental in sentiment.  You might know these boys, shanghaied to the end of the earth, and near the end of their days.

A robustly handsome young man of soldier age, Gwyther performs this one-man “spoken word” poem-cum-drama in a spellbinding sixty minutes.

The storytelling is Homeric.  In one example, our storyteller shifts about the small stage, pointing just a short distance left, right and center, recounting in neat stanzas the isolated moments just before the truce is struck.

A grenade’s throw away
Corporal Walther Stennes from 6th Company Berlin tucks his legs up into his chest and closes his eyes, thinking of his Mother and sister and what they could be doing right now. 

A grenade’s throw away
Under the close glow of candlelight, Leftenant John Reith, pulls out a piece of paper and sits at his desk. The tip of his pen hovers under “Dear Maggie,” as he searches for something new to say. 

A grenade’s throw away
Leftenant Kurt Zehmisch of the 134th Saxons writes the report for his commanding officers . But his eyes stray upwards, distracted by the stars and he’s flown back to the past and relives the last night he spent with his wife. 

And then the carols begin in the distance and young men conjure a respite. They are in the flower of youth, desperate and innocent enough to think it still possible that “it might all work out and we can all go home.”  It is, of course, early days.

The waste and wantonness of war is the headline here.  What makes it a Christmas tale to be savored is the evidence of humanity unleashed, however briefly, against all odds.

In an unexpected Q&A after the performance, Gwyther the playwright and performer sat along side director Tom O’Brien, both on folding chairs, to tell us about their adventure fielding this remarkable show around the world.

No one will be surprised to hear the director directed the exchange, and very gracefully too.  The playwright/performer mostly mumbled. It couldn’t have mattered less.  He’d already had us all in the palm of his hand for a full hour.

Our Friends The Enemy – written and performed by Alex Gwyther; directed by Tom O’Brien.

UK production design by James Hirst; lighting by Derek  Anderson; sound by David Gregory; music composition by Darren Clark; stage manager Rosie Cassell.  Presented by David Adkin Limited  At The Lion Theater, 410 West 42nd Street, Manhattan.  Through December 20th.  Running time: one hour.