Watching Ken Butler's committed and revealing production, you can only surmise that the Lord Chancellor was asleep on the job the day, back in 1925, when he granted this play a licence and so enabled it to transfer from club performance at the Royal Court to the Playhouse Theatre in the West End. The love that dare not speak its name may not declare itself outright within the drama, but it certainly seems to be on the tip of everyone's tongue. Bizarre, then, that during rehearsals, the first director seems to have avoided all mention of homosexuality; it would, you feel, be about as easy and fruitful to tiptoe round the topic of race while rehearsing Othello.
Drawing on Ackerley's own experiences as a prisoner of war, the play is set in a hotel in the Swiss Alps among a group of interned officers. The central character, Jim Conrad (Ashley Russell), is a highly strung, repressed young captain, tormentedly in love with Grayle, a pretty, heterosexual and shallow RFC observer, five years his junior. As it charts the melodramatic course of Conrad's emotional decline (from prickly infatuation to fury to near-catatonia), the play contrasts the anguish of this lopsided relationship with the uncomplicated camaraderie of two other internees, Tetford and Rickman.
It's in this contrast between the healthy and the sick that The Prisoners of War may seem to a modern audience to be at its most prudish and cagey. After all, the play would have more of a problem to solve if it had given Conrad a worthwhile object of desire. But it's a far from holy Grayle that the captain pines for. As Peter Parker notes in his fine biography of Ackerley, Grayle was meant to be a stony, self-satisfied and loveless exemplar of the English officer class. The play shows how prepared he is to exploit Conrad's affection, while keeping him at arm's length, even trying, at the end, to wriggle out of his turn on the rota for sitting with the poor, broken man.
It's a strength of this production, though, that Neil Roberts plays Grayle from the character's own point of view in a performance that doesn't quite square with all the relentless editorialising against him. You're struck by his youth and immaturity, as much as by his calculation; you even permit yourself the odd twinge of sympathy for this man stuck in the charged neurotic atmosphere that Ashley Russell's Conrad compellingly creates.
All the same, the play - in focusing on a relationship that would have been disastrous even if it could have been consummated - is interestingly agnostic about the viability of a healthy homosexual affair. It's the horse-playing heteros, Tetford and Rickman, with their plan to set up a partnership in the Canadian outback, who are the buddies with a clean, golden future. The embarrassing effect of this pair is only increased by Cory Johnson, whose Rickman seems an anachronistic product of the method school of acting.
Good at creating the displaced public school feel of the hotel, the production is not always as subtle as it might be. For example, Adelby, the greying, pipe-chewing lieutenant / housemaster - who tries to warn Conrad about Grayle and who expatiates on the Theban Band of homosexual warriors - looks not so much strained and avuncular as downright sinister in Ian Flavin's eye-rolling performance. But then this is not a subtle play, although it is a brave and pioneering one. When Madame Louis, a young Swiss widow, complains flirtatiously about the Monk which comes between the Eiger and the Jungfrau, you don't have to be Freud to get her drift. Nor when Conrad rams her would-be roguish remark 'I have heard you do not like much the fair sex' back in her beautiful face with the riposte: 'The fair sex? Which sex is that?'
'The Prisoners of War' continues at the New End Theatre, Hampstead, London NW3 until 28 Feb (071-794 0022)