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Saturday, 17 August 2013 00:00

Armstrong's War

by Michael Stewart

Finborough Theatre
London SW10

Halley Armstrong and Michael Armstrong seem the unlikeliest of bed fellows. They're poles apart and the only thing they have in common is their surname.

He, a 21 year-old Canadian soldier, is recuperating in an Ottawa hospital from wounds he suffered in Afghanistan.

She is a 12-year-old girl guide eager to earn all the badges going by reading to invalids.

There is one more affinity - Halley is wheelchair-bound due to a skiing injury that cut short her Olympic hopes.

We soon learn that hope and the evasion of unpleasant reality, even to the point of lying, loom large in her child's psyche. In truth a car accident injured her spine and killed her father.

There is a large dollop of Anne of Green Gables in Halley - her wild enthusiasm and imagination are infectious but it is an infection this war damaged soldier does not want.

Never one to give up she finds the one book to fire his soul - Stephen Crane's Red Badge of Courage.

When Michael tells her this tale of the American civil war was written entirely from Crane's imagination and not from his own involvement she responds by denigrating experience.

We then get a horrific account of Armstrong's war in Afghanistan, -one that chills the blood.

There are so many themes in Colleen Murphy's play - fiction versus reality, imagination versus experience, loyalty in battle, the folly of war, the ethics of mercy killing and finally the yellow badge of cowardice.

Jessica Barden - of Tamara Drew and Coronation Street renown - gives a highly spirited performance as Halley and you can almost see the sparks flying. Her sometimes annoying ebullience is both funny and sad.

Mark Quartley's Armstrong is totally convincing as a pent-up battle- weary soldier whose rages fuel the play and who emotionally thaws out by the close.

See it before its "world premiere" in Toronto, Canada, in October.

Runs until August 27, Box office (0844) 847-1652. Online www,finboroughtheatre.co.uk

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