Set in the Queen Elizabeth Military Hospital during the spring of 1984, Jonathan Lewis's Our Boys turns into a devastating indictment of the way the Army trades on the idea that it is a close family and yet is prepared to throw men on the scrapheap when their sufferings in the line of duty have made them an embarrassment. Often extremely funny, the play raises deeply awkward questions about loyalty, class and the de facto conscription caused by economic hardship. And it does so all the more powerfully because of its robust humour, avoidance of stereotype, and a structure that allows it to move into bleakness by quietly shattering stealth.
Initial conflict is provided by the arrival among the patients of a potential officer, or "Rupert" as they are nicknamed, Menzies (Marston Bloom). This is irksome to the rest of the ward which includes a cockney fusilier (Perry Fenwick) who has lost his toes through an officer's incompetence and a shrewd, cocky joker (superb Lloyd Owen) who has survived the Hyde Park bombing much less well, psychologically, than is at first apparent. Terrific ensemble work in the author's own production communicates the tricky social tensions and helps highlight the contradictions in the men.
The group dynamics are at their most hilarious in the scene where the patients play "The Beer Hunter", a version of Russian roulette with spraying lager cans. This illicit drinking session has some very sobering consequences, however, in the play's stronger second half. The men on the ward have been betrayed to the authorities, it emerges, by one of their number. Suspicion naturally points to middle-class Menzies but it becomes evident that his commitment to the Army was never strong. He signed on at 15 because, after a family mishap, he needed somebody to pay his school and university fees.
It would be wrong to give away the identity of the real culprit, but it can be said Lewis manages to wrest a number of very revealing ironies out of the situation. Burning Blue, the play about gay witch-hunts in the American military now on at the King's Head, shows how the navy depends upon intense male bonding but balks at the homosexuality to which such an ethos might naturally lead. In Our Boys we see how the Army thrives on recruiting men who, because they would not have survived five minutes on civvy street, develop a conveniently extreme dependence on the life, the discipline and the companionship of their mates. If such men are threatened with dismissal because of injuries sustained in service, then to avoid that fate they may, we see, be prepared to betray the very comrades on whom they have relied. Both these plays offer food for prolonged thought and are honourable additions to what could be called the anti-recruitment drive genre.
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