Jonathan Lewis’s play, set in a military hospital in 1984, was rapturously received when seen at Derby Playhouse in 1995, and then at London’s Donmar. Catching up with it now, in David Grindley’s strongly cast revival, it strikes me as a decent enough piece, but over-reliant on the conventions of army comedy and lacking in real anger at the way disabled servicemen are often thrown on to the scrapheap.
I guess we can take its authenticity for granted, since Lewis himself spent time in the very Woolwich hospital where the play is set. We even have, in the character of Menzies, someone who is a potential officer suddenly thrust into a ward occupied by casualties of the Falklands and Northern Ireland conflicts, as was Lewis. And the play captures with vivid accuracy the instinctive distrust of the squaddies for the outsider, their contempt for high military ideals (“You don’t do it for Queen and Country,” someone protests, “you do it for your mates”), and their need to invent ways of alleviating the deadly boredom: one involves a variation, played with beer cans, on the Russian roulette scene from The Deer Hunter.
It’s good as far as it goes, but Lewis leaves until very late in the day the truth about the group’s seemingly confident leader, Joe, and never gets to grips with the dismal failure of the authorities to treat or understand post-traumatic stress disorder: what we get is a vigorous slice of military life, but one without much hint of savage indignation.
The acting is very good. Laurence Fox has exactly the right artificial swagger as Joe. And Arthur Darvill as a dangerously chirpy, sit-down comedian, together with Cian Barry as a brooding Ulsterman and Jolyon Coy as the putative officer all impress. But while I was entertained, I found myself hungering for a hint of the political passion of John McGrath’s Events While Guarding the Bofors Gun – a play that also shows squaddies confronting a would-be officer and which offers a far more thorough indictment of the military machine.