For the last few years, Behind The Lines have been carving out a very specific, but very successful niche for themselves – exploring the golden age of music-hall, bringing stars of the past back to life. This year's show follows the same familiar pattern, but there's one crucial difference from what's come before. Because this time round, regular Ali Child is joined on stage by her real-life son Harry… and this time round, the performer they celebrate is a man.
The man in question is Basil Hallam, a darling of his day, whose career had the misfortune to intersect with the First World War. He has medically unfit for duty, but the public still turned against him; believing that his foppish stage persona reflected the real man, they derided him in newspaper columns and sent white feathers to highlight his supposed shame. At the start of Fall Of Duty meanwhile, in modern-day Brighton, we see a mum called Sue pushing her likeable son Jack to achieve greater things – unaware that he, too, hides a steely character beneath a listless veneer.
The parallel is intricate and clever, but the balance is slightly off. The opening scenes go slowly, spending too much time establishing the easy-to-grasp back-story; "mum thinks her son's a layabout" doesn't need all that much elaboration. I'd have loved to see a little more of Jack's coming-of-age, and hear a little less of Sue's nagging – which at times was enough to make even 40-year-old me roll my eyes and moan that she just doesn't understand.
It's only once the song-and-dance numbers kick in that the show really hits its stride. Performer Harry Child, who seemed a little uncertain in the early scenes as Jack, expands into his role the moment he begins to sing – and with a rich voice matched by a confident swagger, it's easy to picture him as the young Basil Hallam. The songs are neatly matched to episodes in the present-day tale, and they culminate in the mandatory uplifting audience sing-along, embraced with heart by all present on the day I attended.
There's one further figure in the music-hall scenes: performer Elsie Janis, who Sue often references and occasionally steps into character to play. Janis takes the back seat to Hallam – just as this is Jack's story more than Sue's – but we learned about her practical courage in organising a tour of wartime France, an anecdote which whetted my appetite for more. I'd happily sacrifice some of the modern-day themes, if it made more room to explore that side of the historic tale.
Ultimately though, it's the relationship between Sue and Jack which forms the play's emotional heart. They don't quite understand each other, but it's clear that they love each other – and the knowledge that they're being played by a real-life mother and son adds an extra sprinkle of sweetness to an already touching tale. My eyes were a little misty at the end of it… for Basil, for Jack, and for memories of the days when I too was twenty-one.