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Theatre review: The Grandfathers, The Shed, National Theatre


National service ended fifty years ago in this country but, around the world, young men and women are still conscripted into their country's armed forces.

To research the subject, Irish playwright Rory Mullarkey took himself off on a trip to Russia but he was mistaken for a spy by suspicious locals and the mission was abortive. He ended up gathering material instead at Pirbright training base and the experiences of these British recruits inform a 45 minute piece that dramatises in a more generalised way the effects of compulsorily military service in an unnamed country.

The Grandfathers was commissioned for NT Connections 2012 and was performed last year by youth groups across the land.  But it was Bristol Old Vic Young Company who most impressed the author and the arbiters at the National in Jesse Jones's spare, beautifully marshalled production. 

The show has deservedly been brought in for a short run at the Shed. The play opens on foreign soil at the brutal climax and then rewinds to show us this fighting unit in the days of their basic training as eight raw conscripts under Sergeant Tol: “Erase the word 'personal' from your vocabulary. It was never even there”. It's stirring to watch how these young actors rise to the diverse demands of a script which is humorous, provocative and cumulatively haunting. 

They bring a delicate balletic precision to the looped shorthand choreography of their repetitive daily routines (the scramble upright, the launch forward into press-up position and the roll sideways back onto their bunk). They capture superbly the edgy comedy of the group dynamics in scenes such as the one where a revealing debate over whether to harbour a broken-winged bird divides the company into the amusingly tender-hearted (“I've already named him Hector”) and those who sarcastically see the bird's arrival as “a clandestine incursion into sovereign territory” and want it killed. 

Underscored by Alistair Debling's lovely elegiac music (performed live), this idiosyncratic assembly take turns in the spotlight as individuals, ranging from the cocky troublemaker who resents the obsession with polishing combat boots since he's hardly likely to want to check his quiff in them in the heat of battle, to the sensitive soul preyed on by the thought that people are paid to out-imagine your own worst nightmares. And, as the conscripts head off to the front, the actors weave, with great rhythmic skill, a deeply poignant inter-subjective tapestry of lines and phrases that have preoccupied the play. Invidious to mention particular performers in what is splendidly mounted joint-operation.