The War Prayer Concert
May 4th, 2018
Nelson Fringe Festival
Reviewed by Lisa Allan
The back wall of Ghost Light Theatre is adorned with a suitably 60’s inspired floral projection, setting the scene for the anti-war performance that is, The War Prayer Concert. The show is a coming together of the lyrical, both through music and poetry, with the pièce de résistance being Mark Twain’s posthumously published work, ‘The War Prayer.’
Another Mark, one Mr Raffills, is our host for the night and he gets things off to a nostalgic start by reciting the first verse of ‘Blowing in the Wind.’ My heart strings are plucked and I am simultaneously thrust into my childhood, sitting on the floor of my bedroom, gluing the lyrics of this song into my scrap book and further back, to a time of flowers and long hair and bare-feet and the strong sentiments that saw a generation of youngsters stand up to have their say. Musicians Lisa Williams (guitar/ vocals), Leigh Strange (keyboard/ vocals) and Phill Simmonds (octave mandolin/ harmonica/ vocals) come in on the chorus. Harmonies weaving in and out like a sweet breeze inviting us to ask ourselves the big question… ‘How many times?’
Each of the four performers has their own style and connection to the material. We discover that Lisa has a son in the military, another in government. As she serenades us with her original song, University of Peace, we hope that the words of their mother might still have sway, might reach them and touch them as they go about their jobs… “just let love and peace remain…”
Phill tells us about his Dad and the strong ideals that passed from the older man to the younger one. He paints us a picture of the last moments of his Dad’s life, the gathering together of family and the request for Phill to play his song, Watch the Fire, during his last moments. We hear that this song was written for Phill’s ex-wife, just after their divorce and the heart and soul of this special man shine through as he shares his music with us. Perhaps it’s just my imagination swept up in the magical web of the past but it seems to me that the music extends out of him like an aura of hope.
The crowd appreciates the way Leigh shares herself through her two religious songs. I would have loved a wee story from her, to help us connect to her like we were able to do so with the other performers.
Mark Raffills commands the stage with his experience and conviction. He takes us into his family home, introduces us to his sons and shares a poem, conversationally inviting us to march down the street saying ‘no more, no more.’ He drops into ‘The War Prayer’ with a change in energy. His voice, clear and simple, drawing us into this powerful piece of writing. Accompanied by poignant projections and choice direction by Ronnie Short, we are introduced to the two sides of a congregations prayer for victory at war. I was spellbound as Mark described the old man, everything fell away and I wanted to lean in and in and in as his voice lowered and I saw the stranger forming before my eyes. Mark is a beautiful storyteller and this particular moment was the highlight of the show for me. After the impact of this prayer, I needed stillness, simplicity and gravitas.
The particular version of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ that followed shook me out of the prayer and the musicians found it a bit hard to chime in. It was the perfect choice of song to end with but didn’t need to be fancy, fancy detracted from the message, putting the focus onto the quality of the vocals (which was lovely by the way, just not suitable for that moment).
These small critiques aside, I do recommend getting along to The War Prayer Concert, if it comes your way. The show was a gentle hand-raising, an echo through time that seemed to say ‘I’m still here, I still disagree with war, I haven’t given up.’