#FinboroughForFree: It Is Easy To Be Dead

by Neil McPherson

Online from 7 May – 7 July 2020

“And your bright Promise, withered long and sped,
Is touched, stirs, rises, opens and grows sweet
And blossoms and is you, when you are dead.”

The world premiere from 2016

Following its critically acclaimed sell-out run at the Finborough Theatre in 2016 where it was nominated for seven OffWestEnd Awards including Best New Play, and its Olivier nominated run at the Trafalgar Studios, and a Scottish tour, the world premiere production of It Is Easy To Be Dead becomes the first Finborough Theatre production to be made available for free viewing online through the Society of London Theatre’s Official London Theatre YouTube channel.

Commemorating the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, the world premiere of It Is Easy To Be Dead by award-winning playwright Neil McPherson.

Born in Aberdeen, Charles Sorley was studying in Germany when the First World War broke out and was briefly imprisoned as an enemy alien. He was one of the first to join the army in 1914.

Killed in action a year later at the age of 20, his poems are among the most ambivalent , profound and moving war poetry ever written.

It Is Easy To Be Dead tells the story of Sorley’s brief life through his work and music and songs from some of the greatest composers of the period including George Butterworth, Dòmhnall Ruadh Chorùna, Ivor Gurney, John Ireland, Rudi Stephan and Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Unique among the poets of the First World War, Sorley’s life and work fits chronologically into the patriotic idealism of such writers as Julian Grenfell and Rupert Brooke (whom Sorley criticised for his “sentimental attitude”). Perhaps because of his time in Germany before the war, Sorley perceived the truth of the war long before his fellow writers, and anticipated the grim disillusionment of later poets such as Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg and Siegfried Sassoon.

The cast includes Jenny Lee (West End, Royal Court Theatre, The Young Vic, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh), Tom Marshall (National Theatre, West End, Royal Court Theatre, Menier Chocolate Factory) and two new discoveries – actor Alexander Knox as Charles Sorley, and acclaimed young tenor Hugh Benson.

About The Playwright Neil McPherson

Playwright Neil McPherson is Artistic Director of the Finborough Theatre. His first play I Wish to Die Singing – Voices From The Armenian Genocide, commemorating the centenary of the Armenian Genocide, was presented at the Finborough Theatre in 2015, and an excerpt was also performed concurrently in Los Angeles. The script is published by Oberon Books. I Wish to Die Singing won the Best Play Award 2015 in the UK Studio Theatre Awards.

About The Director Max Key

Director Max Key returns to the Finborough Theatre following the sell-out world premiere of Year 10 which won the Time Out Critics' Choice Award and transferred to BAC, prior to a European tour. He trained on the National Theatre Directors' Course and works in theatre, film and opera. Theatre includes Up the Royal Borough and Lullaby Burn (Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith), Mariana Pineda, The Turn of the Screw and The Rape of Lucretia (Arcola Theatre), Vote By Ballot and NT Connections (National Theatre), Macbeth (Indian Tour) and Wilde Tales (Southwark Playhouse). Assistant Direction includes assisting Peter Gill on The Voysey Inheritance (National Theatre), Sean Holmes on Treasure Island (Theatre Royal Haymarket), Tony Harrison on Fram (National Theatre) and Francesca Zambello on La Bohème (Royal Albert Hall). Film includes Preservation starring Saskia Reeves for Palm Springs International Film Festival and BAFTA.

Max has taught and directed extensively at leading London drama schools including LAMDA and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. His productions for drama schools include Cymbeline, The Way of the World, Summerfolk, August: Osage County and Jerusalem. Most recently, Max has revived Tim Albery's production of The Flying Dutchman (Royal Opera House, Covent Garden) and was Associate Director for Peter Gill on As Good A Time As Any (The Print Room).

About The Producer Bréon Rydell

Bréon Rydell is an essayist, poet, composer and producer.  In 2019, he was appointed Visiting Fellow at The Heidelberg Center for American Studies, Germany, where he helped to develop a new, interdisciplinary course: The American Dream in the 21st Century: Where Are We Now?  Examples of Bréon’s work can be found at www.breonrydell.com

The Press on the Original Production of It Is Easy To Be Dead at the Finborough Theatre

Subsequently transferred to Trafalgar Studios from 9 November-3 December 2016 and for a Scottish tour of the Tivoli Theatre, Aberdeen, and Oran Mor, Glasgow, in November 2018

★★★★★ The Guardian
★★★★★ BritishTheatre.com
★★★★★ Broadway World
★★★★★ London Pub Theatres
★★★★★ The Upcoming
★★★★★ Carn’s Theatre Passion
★★★★★ North West End
★★★★ and Pick of The Week, The Sunday Times
★★★★ The Times
★★★★ The Herald
★★★★ Time Out
★★★★ WhatsOnStage
★★★★ The Jewish Chronicle
★★★★ Musical Theatre Review
★★★★ Reviewsgate
★★★★ London Theatre 1
★★★★ LiveTheatre
★★★★ Ginger Wig and Strolling Man
★★★★ TheSpyintheStalls

Nominated for an Olivier Award
Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre

Nominated for a MyTheatreAward
Best Original Work

Nominated for 7 OffWestEnd Awards
Best Male Performance
Best Male Performance in a Supporting Role
Best New Play
Best Director
Best Lighting Designer
Best Sound Designer
Best Set Designer

Nominated for four Broadway World UK Awards
Best Actor in a New Production of a Musical
Best Direction of a New Production of a Play
Best New London Fringe Production
Best New Play

“A century on, it’s easy to tell ourselves that we’ve heard enough from the trenches. This artful evening reminds us that there is always more to learn, to be appalled by and, yes, dazzled by too.” Dominic Maxwell, The Times

“A fitting and poignant tribute.” Theo Bosanquet, Time Out

“A sharp reminder of the fragility of peace and the terrible consequences of taking that state for granted.” Gary Naylor, Broadway World

“I must admit I’d never heard of Charles Sorley before watching this play, but having now discovered his haunting poetry, it’s difficult not to be moved by its refreshing, if brutal, honesty. There’s nothing sentimental or patriotic about his writing.” Liz Dyer, Carn’s Theatre Passion

“A poignant moving narrative of one man’s war. What Charles Sorley achieved in his short life should remain an inspiration to us all. Not to be missed.” TheSpyintheStalls.com

“This beautiful tribute to the First World War poet Charles Sorley took me by surprise. After all, I had — I’ll confess — never heard of Sorley, a poet celebrated by his peers if not by a huge wider public, who died aged 20 in 1915 in the Battle of Loos. And the prospect of a show made up of his letters and poems, with British and German songs from the period and dramatisations of his stiff Scottish parents’ reactions to his death . . . it sounded more National Trust than National Theatre. Yet It is Easy to be Dead turns out to be a tender, absorbing, eye-opening account of both an awful conflict and a great lost talent.” Dominic Maxwell, The Times

“Hugely worthwhile piece, moving yet never mawkish, pertinent for its quiet reminder of the fragility of life, civilisation and peace.” Patricia Nicol, The Sunday Times

“A sobering, moving, magnificent portrait of a life unfinished.” Jessica Handscomb, A Younger Theatre

“Charles Sorley is not a First World War poet as familiar as Wilfred Owen or Rupert Brooke, whose works are ingrained on the national consciousness. But on the evidence of Neil McPherson’s fascinating dramatisation of his short life, he merits no less attention.” Theo Bosanquet, Time Out

“A haunting tribute to a remarkable forgotten war poet” Claire Allfree, The Daily Telegraph

“Quietly devastating.” Dominic Cavendish, The Daily Telegraph

“Well crafted, well staged, well acted.” Quentin Letts, The Daily Mail

“Powerful musical moments.” Dominic Maxwell, The Times

“Copious haunting songs.” Dominic Cavendish, The Daily Telegraph

“A fascinating insight into one of the Great War’s lesser known, yet certainly important, writers.” Jordan Morrissey, My Entertainment World

“Marked by an outstanding central performance and infused with audio-visual delights, It is Easy to Be Dead is a moving testament and a must-see during its limited run.” Jordan Morrissey, My Entertainment World

“The end of Act Two had me in tears and left me tremendously moved.” Douglas Mayo, BritishTheatre.com

“A portrait of Charles Hamilton Sorley, whose highly intelligent, optimistic young life and undoubted literary talent.” Dominic Cavendish, The Daily Telegraph

“McPherson shows Sorley to be a young man both of his time and enticingly modern in his lack of sentimentality and his conversational tone.” Dominic Maxwell, The Times

“Neil McPherson’s thoughtful play…conveys both the young man’s enthusiastic energy and the intensity of his parents’ loss.” Patricia Nicol, The Sunday Times

“Beautifully written…McPherson's perfectly judged script.” Gary Naylor, Broadway World

“The cast are tremendous.” Gary Naylor, Broadway World

“Alexander Knox is stunning as Sorley, giving him the bonhomie of a young thing, the clear-sightedness of an old soul.” Dominic Maxwell, The Times

“Alexander Knox gives a brilliant performance.” Liz Dyer, Carn’s Theatre Passion

“Alexander Knox’s inquisitively engaging Charlie.” Patricia Nicol, The Sunday Times

“This is Alexander Knox's play. His Charlie is the son every parent wants, the brother every sister wants, the friend every young man wants and, had he got to Oxford, the boyfriend every undergraduate wants.” Gary Naylor, Broadway World

“An excellent central performance: Alexander Knox honours Sorley with a deeply sympathetic portrayal, finely balancing passion and poise.” Theo Bosanquet, Time Out

“Sorley’s wit and drive are captured perfectly by the young actor Alexander Knox, a veritable whirlwind around the stage.” TheSpyintheStalls.com

“Whether generating uneasy sexual heat with his German hostess (Elizabeth Rossiter, also the pianist) or shouting an account of battle against a barrage of sound effects— Knox has a radiant ease about him.” Dominic Maxwell, The Times

“Sorley, played by Alexander Knox, was not a sentimentalist, and wrote of the war with nothing but frank disfavour. Knox brings this to life with the playful and boyish demeanour in which he recites Sorley’s letters, and captures Sorley’s brightness brilliantly.” Jessica Handscomb, A Younger Theatre

“Lively, animated, emotional, real, Knox takes the writings of Sorley and brings them wondrously to live with a zeal that is astounding… A staggering performance…full of humour, pathos and truth” Douglas Mayo, BritishTheatre.com

“Alexander Knox in a fine central performance. Quentin Letts, The Daily Mail

“Alexander Knox is terrific as Sorley, infusing his character with wit and effervescing with intelligence while delivering the lines of his poems with deft and moving sincerity.” Jordan Morrissey, My Entertainment World

“In Alexander Knox’s likeable, bright-eyed performance you get a palpable, painful inkling of what was lost.” Dominic Cavendish, The Daily Telegraph

“Tom Marshall and Jenny Lee as his parents are perfect.” TheSpyintheStalls.com

“Heartbreaking scenes as his parents, played by Jenny Lee and Tom Marshall.” Liz Dyer, Carn’s Theatre Passion

“Tom Marshall and Jenny Lee make wholly believable parents: he the epitome of the Calvanist tradition, stiff upper lip maintained - until he cracks; she the grieving mother, emotions just about held in check, but unable to cope with the void in her life.” Gary Naylor, Broadway World

“As Sorley’s parents, Tom Marshall and Jenny Lee are everything you could want. Proud, prudent, emotive, they play these parts truthfully, making the loss of their son all the more moving.” Douglas Mayo, BritishTheatre.com

“Hugh Benson sings beautifully.” Jessica Handscomb, A Younger Theatre

“Hugh Benson, wonderful.” Patricia Nicol, The Sunday Times

“Hugh Benson, his operatic voice alternately strident and doleful, as poems are put to music and old favourites sung, adds a layer of poignancy to a play hardly short in the first place.” Gary Naylor, Broadway World

“Benson has a truly amazing and powerful voice, yet is expressive and mesmerising.” TheSpyintheStalls.com

“Hugh Benson also deserves mention for his outstanding vocals.” Jordan Morrissey, My Entertainment World

“Music beautifully performed by singer Hugh Benson and pianist Elizabeth Rossiter.” Liz Dyer, Carn’s Theatre Passion

“The music, sung exquisitely by Hugh Benson and accompanied on piano by Elizabeth Rossiter, hauntingly underscores Sorley's conviction in the beauty of German culture.” Claire Allfree, The Daily Telegraph

“Elizabeth Rossiter’s deft music direction, accompanied by Hugh Benson’s singing, appropriately combines British and German songs.” Theo Bosanquet, Time Out

“The director, Max Key, keeps the atmosphere vivid throughout.” Dominic Maxwell, The Times

“Walking out onto Whitehall mid-evening on Remembrance Day, and seeing veterans with their medals walking up towards Trafalgar Square, was a final devastating blow that left Sorley in my mind for most of the weekend. I must admit to spending time on the weekend finding more of Sorley’s work to read.” Douglas Mayo, BritishTheatre.com

The Press on The Online Release of It Is Easy To Be Dead

★★★★★ Five Stars, North West End
★★★★★ Five Stars, The Upcoming
★★★★ Four Stars, Morning Star Online
★★★★ Four Stars, ReviewsGate

One of Play By Play’s two plays of the week to watch

OffWestEnd OnComm Award

“The Finborough, which had a real hit with this production at the time: it transferred to the Trafalgar, toured Scotland, and was nominated for an Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliate Theatre. On the occasion this year of the theatre's 40th anniversary, here's a chance to make a donation while you watch, since social distancing in a playhouse of this size would, if required, leave most of the audience on the street.” Matt Wolf, The Arts Desk

“The Finborough is one of London's oldest and most productive and adventurous above-a-pub theatres. This play by Artistic Director Neil McPherson was a success there in 2016 and went on to a further run at Trafalgar Studio 2. The video recording made then is now offered online as the first in a series of lockdown-era streamed productions.” Gerald Berkowitz, Theatre Guide London

“Of small comfort to theatre’s enduring existential crises during this unprecedented period is the ability to reach wider audiences online. For a tiny hidden gem of a pub theatre such as the Finborough in West London, it is perhaps something they could look to utilise to take their productions beyond the 50, often sold-out, seats for their productions. The story of first-world-war poet Charles Hamilton Sorley, the subject of It Is Easy to Be Dead, is certainly one a wider audience deserves to see.” Mayer Wakefield, Morning Star Online

“The standard of plays produced at the Finborough Theatre is always high, and it remains at the heart of London theatre.” Caroline Worswick, North West End

“While big guns like the National, the Globe and the RSC trawl their extant repertoire, spare a thought for the small but crucial Finborough Theatre.” Matt Wolf, The Arts Desk

“There are some theatrical gems online at present - including this excellent play about the long forgotten WW1 poet Charles Hamilton Sorley from the tiny Finborough Theatre.” Miss Miniver’s Daughter

“A very welcome digital revival from a lifeblood theatre we simply cannot afford to lose.” Mayer Wakefield, Morning Star Online

“Unmissable is a word too often carelessly used, and I did miss the production at the Finborough being away at the time, so this came as a revelation. It is exactly that. Not to be missed.” William Russell, ReviewsGate

“A powerful drama.” Mark Lawson, The Tablet

“A fascinating and poignant glimpse into Sorley’s short life.” Sally Jack, British Theatre Guide

“More than just another anti-war play: it’s an emotional, justified and full depiction of a poet who needs to be remembered, and it succeeds in every way. An absolute must-see.” Michael Higgs, The Upcoming

“Compelling drama.” John Chapman, 2nd From Bottom

“A powerful and poignant piece that asks the question of what it means to be patriotic and at what cost? Questions that sadly we are still asking ourselves 100 years later.” Graham, Armchair Reviewers Club

“A beautiful and moving homage to Sorley which won’t be forgotten anytime soon.” Michael Higgs, The Upcoming

“Educational, perceptive, and well done.” Sam Lowe, Number 9 Reviews

“Apart from the quality of McPherson’s play, the production is well worth watching in its own right, because this is fringe theatre at its best.” William Russell, ReviewsGate

“Charles Hamilton Sorley was considered by Robert Graves to be “one of the three poets of importance killed during the War”. Unfathomably, Sorley’s writing has been somewhat overlooked during the later analysis and study of the lives and literature of World War I, however, Neil McPherson's play It Is Easy To Be Dead goes a long way to redressing the balance.” Sally Jack, British Theatre Guide

“The play…did advance the cause of an unjustly neglected poet of the era so for that we should be grateful. Perhaps the next war poetry anthology creator will give Sorley a rather more prominent position alongside his contemporaries.” John Chapman, 2nd From Bottom

“Full picture of an educated, sensitive and curious young man whose life was hijacked by the power struggles of empires who were happy to throw him away for their cause.” Miriam Sallon, The Reviews Hub

“A respectful and revealing portrayal of a remarkable young man. Caught in the most tragic of times, he clearly had great empathy for his fellow humans, and we are fortunate now to meet him through his and McPherson's writing.” Sally Jack, British Theatre Guide

“Neil McPherson shows fine artistic balance.” Alison, Armchair Reviewers Club

“Neil McPherson has crafted a splendid play from his poems and letters.” William Russell, ReviewsGate

“It is testament to McPherson, artistic director of the Finborough for over three decades, that the domestic scenes provide some of the most moving sequences.” Mayer Wakefield, Morning Star Online

“Neil McPherson artfully layers the years before the war when one couldn’t have dreamed of what was to come, along with the bloody, nightmarish years in the trenches and the consequential mourning of the home front.” Miriam Sallon, The Reviews Hub

“McPherson’s tribute highlights the poet’s life, letters, and poetry, resulting in a well-rounded portrayal of a character who yearned for life and had a passion for language and culture, and the show does it in such a way that one cannot help but get swept away by his story.” Michael Higgs, The Upcoming

“Neil McPherson’s text effortlessly intersperses verbatim testimony from Sorley himself with scenes of his grief-stricken parents…alongside some stirring songs from the period.” Mayer Wakefield, Morning Star Online

“Neil McPherson’s writing mixes some excellent prose of his own with Charles Hamilton Sorley’s undeservedly forgotten poetry and witty letters, and finishes it off with some gorgeous music by a range of composers from the early 20th century and before.” Michael Higgs, The Upcoming

“I liked how McPherson played with the presentation of the poetry and letters.” Sam Lowe, Number 9 Reviews

“The addition of tenor Hugh Benson, singing songs from the period was a wonderful touch.” Caroline Worswick, North West End

“Powerfully performed with some wonderful music to accompany it.” Graham, Armchair Reviewers Club

“The performance…is superb.” Miriam Sallon, The Reviews Hub

“The cast are superb, but Knox is outstanding as Sorley, portraying his playfulness and intellectual maturity with engaging charm.” Sally Jack, British Theatre Guide

“Director Max Key gets from Alexander Knox, who plays Sorley, a shining and spellbinding performance which holds the attention throughout.” William Russell, ReviewsGate

“Sorley’s story is brought lovingly to life through McPherson’s clever use of primary and secondary materials, and Alexander Knox’s passionate portrayal as the poet is spectacular.” Michael Higgs, The Upcoming

“It is Alexander Knox in the leading role who really binds the production together. His delivery of Sorley’s poetry is captivating.” Mayer Wakefield, Morning Star Online

“The excellent Alex Knox.” John Chapman, 2nd From Bottom

“Alexander Knox…embodies the naïve swagger of a boy who thinks he’s a man. He delivers levity and solemnity with equal credibility, slipping gently from optimism to despair as the war continues.” Miriam Sallon, The Reviews Hub

“Knox’s performance as Charles Sorley brought out his youthful sense of adventure with a subtle naivety.” Sam Lowe, Number 9 Reviews

“As his parents…Tom Marshall and Jenny Lee could not be bettered.” William Russell, ReviewsGate

“Tom Marshall and Jenny Lee…give carefully nuanced performances clearly holding their grief at bay with a stoicism which is quietly devastating.” John Chapman, 2nd From Bottom

“Tom Marshall and Jenny Lee…present an honest, muted misery.” Miriam Sallon, The Reviews Hub

“Tom Marshall and Jenny Lee generously serve the play.” Gerald Berkowitz, Theatre Guide London

“The scenes involving his mother Janet (Jenny Lee) and father William (Tom Marshall) packs the emotional punch.” Michael Davis, Breaking The Fourth Wall

“Fine support from Elizabeth Rossiter…and Hugh Benson.” William Russell, ReviewsGate

“Elizabeth Rossiter and Hugh Benson’s musical accompaniment…is stirring.” Miriam Sallon, The Reviews Hub

“Pianist Elizabeth Rossiter and singer Hugh Benson punctuate the action with evocative period music.” Gerald Berkowitz, Theatre Guide London

“Beautifully sung by Hugh Benson.” Sally Jack, British Theatre Guide

“Movement and pace are well judged, and director Max Key makes effective use of the…space.” Sally Jack, British Theatre Guide

“A humble and highly effective stage design by Phil Lindley and an atmospheric use of music by Elizabeth Rossiter turn it into quite a memorable ride indeed.” Michael Higgs, The Upcoming

“Phil Lindley’s design is clean and simple.” Miriam Sallon, The Reviews Hub

“Phil Lindley’s inventive set design.” Sally Jack, British Theatre Guide

“The set design created by Phil Lindley and costumes designed by Charlotte Espiner help to transport us to early twentieth century England and Germany.” Caroline Worswick, North West End

“Designer, Phil Lindley had constructed a cosy Study Room set full of little details completing the World War One period aesthetic.” Sam Lowe, Number 9 Reviews

“Effective use of lighting and projection.” Graham, Armchair Reviewers Club

“Gorgeously lit.” Sam Lowe, Number 9 Reviews

“Nathan Hamilton’s sound design is also impressive.” Sally Jack, British Theatre Guide

“Kudos to the sound designer too, the relentless machine guns drumming along to Sorley’s words, not drowning out but adding a layer of authenticity to it.” Graham, Armchair Reviewers Club

“Sound Designer, Nathan Hamilton did a tremendous job of recreating the petrifying and cacophonous sounds of war.” Sam Lowe, Number 9 Reviews

Press Resources

Production press release available here.

Production images available here.

Online from 7 May – 7 July 2020