The Long And The Short And The Tall, Lyceum, Sheffield <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

We're plunged straight into deepest Malaya as the seven men of Blue Patrol burst in to take shelter from the sun and the heat of their desperate situation in Willis Hall's The Long and the Short and the Tall. Cooped up in a raffia hut, their view of the world is through two windows cut into the bamboo revealing a Rousseau-like jungle and the steamy, dripping brightness of a tropical storm. But instead of a tiger lying in wait, there might be an entire Japanese platoon for all they know.

Drawing on his war experiences, Hall tried out his initial ideas at the 1958 Edinburgh Festival. There was a West End opening the next year with Peter O'Toole, and a film. This welcome revival by Sheffield Theatres, directed by Josie Rourke, shows the writer for That Was the Week That Was to have been a playwright of considerable insight.

The Long and the Short and the Tall is superbly crafted, moving inexorably towards a shattering climax; the action is centred as much on the men's fractured relationships as on the unfathomable enemy outside. Tensions erupt almost casually as Blue Patrol waits and watches, while making fruitless attempts to contact its camp base. The soldiers' realisation of the futility of their mission and their lack of combat experience fuels the volatile atmosphere.

Their regional differences flare up, yet, beneath the crude stereotyping of "Scotch haggis", "Welsh taffy" and the fey Geordie, an uneasy ambiguity emerges. Beneath the banter about their backgrounds and sex lives, subtler details emerge about an ordinary bunch of blokes.

They're all well-characterised, from the cowardly, bullying corporal to the glib and insubordinate Private Bamforth, excellently played by Tom Brooke. He turns out to have a stronger streak of humanity than the rest of the patrol put together, though when the jungle warfare finally explodes, there's a cruel irony in the way the Brits have regarded their inscrutable Japanese prisoner.

The song from which the play takes its title optimistically goes "Bless 'em all bound for old Blighty's shore", but you know from the start that you're watching the last, fascinating reel of these men's lives, toys in the hands of their bungling superiors and victims of a dodgy radio transmitter.

To 11 March (0114 249 6000); then Theatre Royal, Norwich (01603 630000), 28 March to 1 April

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