Theatre: The Long and the Short and the Tall Albery Theatre, London

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The play that cemented the writing career of Willis Hall was first mounted at the Royal Court in the euphoric years after Look Back in Anger. Enthusiastically reviewed - "boisterous, exuberant and accurate; it is also beautifully written", declared Tynan - it transferred to the West End but could only sustain a three-month run.

Thirty seven years on, The Long and the Short and the Tall looks its age. What it lacks in flair, it almost makes up in reassuring familiarity and solid craft. The situation of fighting men pinned down and interacting while resolutely not confronting their fate was already well worked (not least in RC Sherriff's Journey's End of three decades earlier). Hall's exhaustive sample of regional working-class types (even Tynan conceded it was "a cliche microcosm") are no more able than Sherriff's dreamy public- school boys to remake themselves as a killing machine and so they perish inglorious.

A seven-strong squad beds down in a dilapidated store-hut in the Malayan jungle. The Japanese invasion of 1942 proceeds around them but, hindered by a broken radio, they cannot guess whether or when to move on. The plot thickens (the only time it does, it must be said) when a lone Japanese soldier happens on the hut. His fate becomes the squad's second imponderable.

That the men are nervily divided and, worse, inclined to exchange strongly expressed views for contradictory ones both delays their move out and precipitates the melodramatic resolution. Of course, were the Sergeant more authoritative and less "decent" and the men better trained and less scared, there would be no play.

A younger playwright (or a more recently written play) would no doubt have explored greater dangers, both physical and psychological. Hall provides instead a mouthy Londoner who keeps challenging orthodox positions, and it is easy to see why contemporary critics considered him a Jimmy Porter clone.

But the dialogue is apt to be conventional, the banter too inconsequential to carry the burden of making each member of the squad seem rounded and important and therefore, in the denouement, tragic. Hall's ear is nothing like as sharp nor his interpretation as creative as that of Charles Wood in his sheaf of plays and scripts about soldiery.

Bill Kenwright has taken a heartening gamble in bringing this modest revival by the self-supporting co-op Counterpoint Theatre into town. Something is odd about the pitch, though, when the top-billed player is Burt Kwouk, who not only never has a line to say but is fully 40 years too stately to be convincing as a humble ranker: you begin wondering if he is that celebrated Japanese private found hiding in the jungle in the Eighties because he never knew that the war had ended.

Kevin Dignam is dynamic but rather generalised in the Peter O'Toole part, while Stephen Omer finds something authentically touching in his character's evocation of a modest little home. Counterpoint co-founder Paul Jerricho directs thoughtfully and carries the changes of mood. Much effing and blinding denied to the original production has been introduced, though some decorous phraseology - "up the creek without a paddle", "haircut to breakfast-time" - oddly survives.

n To 2 March. Booking: 0171-369 1730