“He said the army was his home, his marriage and his mistress,” reports one of the characters here of the decorated veteran turned down-and-out whom he encountered sleeping rough on the Embankment.
This war hero became addicted to the morphine he was given after a wounding in Korea and is now officially banned from the Remembrance Day parade.
Jonathan Lewis's sharp, robustly funny1993 play is fired by principled indignation at the shabby way those who suffer for our security can find themselves treated and it is spiritedly revived by director David Grindley and the team behind the recent highly successful production of R C Sherriff's First World War classic Journey's End.
The piece is set in 1984 in the ward of military hospital where five squaddies are recovering from injuries that range from a bullet in the head in Northern Ireland to toes lost to frostbite when an officer forbade the removal of sodden boots.
The crude banter, the bickering and the jokey wind-ups as this group kill time are performed with a terrific spiky verve by a crack cast that includes Arthur Darvill (of Dr Who fame) as a balefully chippy Parry, the wheelchair-bound frostbite victim, and Laurence Fox excellent here as the cocky, fast-talking Joe whose intelligent anger and underlying sadness feel like the beating heart of the play.
Class tensions are aroused by the introduction of Jolyon Coy's posh PO (Potential Officer) who, it emerges, is now regretting the army bursary that paid for his school fees. An illicit drinking game (a hilarious parody of Russian roulette with spraying lager-cans, called “The Beer-Hunter”) is rumbled by the authorities.
As the squaddies instinctively close ranks against the toff and a deeper act of betrayal is exposed, the play asks whether it can considered just that boys who have laid their lives on the line for Queen and country should face of the possibility of dishonourable discharge for infringing a petty regulation.
Obedience is imperative for the safety of all in the military but what about blind obedience to bungling officers who get off with “a slapped wrist and a map reading course” after leaving their men permanently unfit for a future in this institution?
The production negotiates the sudden switches of mood (from the uproarious to the melancholy) with aplomb; there's sensitivity in the punchy performances; and the play makes its case all the more powerfully for never becoming preachy or programmatic.
To 15 December; 0844 412 4659
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