Theatre: A Soldier's Song Daum Studio Theatre, Plymouth

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The Independent Culture
It is a neat rounding of the circle that Hugh Janes's adaptation of Ken Lukowiak's personal account of the Falklands War should be first seen in Plymouth. At the time (1982), the city was seething with an unholy electric excitement, not in any bloodthirsty sense, but more like the home team playing away in some gladiatorial event, perhaps an international version of the gun carriage contest. Amid the general of air unreality, casualties seemed like sporting injuries.

A Soldier's Song recreates the era, briefly, in the first act. The characterisation of the laconic paras, the red beret putting them almost outside military control, the black humour and bravado of the chosen and their contempt for other units, is well realised. In 1979, Ken signs up in a recruiting office and is soon overwhelmed by military machismo. We see him in Aldershot, in Ulster, where "we're not fighting people, but 400 years of blind prejudice", and embarking and landing on the Falkland Isles, while still finding time to get married. The unrealistic nature of the brief war is underlined by the fact that a soldier places the Falklands in the Outer Hebrides.

The battle scenes are as realistic as could be recreated on a stage. Hugh Janes, who also directs, integrates sound and lighting to overwhelming effect. But the sequence is too long and would improve by tightening and shortening. More effective are the scenes where the battle-weary soldier encounters his dead relatives, with memories of earlier wars, showing how the myths of the past fuel the present. Ken's grandfather, a kilted bagpiper, passes on deadly warnings with grim humour. The surreal incidents broaden and deepen the play's impact.

In Act 2, the fighting is done and Lukowiak's disillusionment begins to show. He is filled with disgust when one of his companions wants his photograph taken lying beside a dead Argentine soldier, like a matador with a dead bull who had fought with honour. Fifteen years after the war, Lukowiak goes back to the Falklands to try to rekindle numbed feelings. In 1997, he goes to Buenos Aires where his book has had a hostile reception, and has a philosophical discussion with an Argentine ex-officer: you have to be fit and young for battles, and too young to know the full implications of actions undertaken in the name of freedom, national pride and Mrs Thatcher.

A splendid set of actors keep A Soldier's Song going as a piece of action theatre. Grant Russell plays Lukowiak and Philip Woodford, Bill Bingham, Stephen Benson and Polly Hayes play a variety of roles in sharply etched vignettes.

And yet A Soldier's Song only scratches the surface. Lukowiak agonises over the man he kills on the last day of the conflict, but reaches no political conclusion about killing a stranger. The Falklands War baffled onlookers all over the world but, it is acknowledged, won an election for Mrs Thatcher - it wasn't only Plymouth pride. In some odd way, the petty conflict rang a bell in the national psyche and Lukowiak gives no explanation of this phenomena.

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