These are the heroes who still rely on our help, twenty years after Jonathan Lewis wrote his angry, funny drama.
It's actually set in the 80s, in the joyless, drab surroundings of Bay 4 in a military hospital in Woolwich.
We get to know very little of these men as soldiers, so we can only guess what they are like in the field. In the ward, they are excellent wind-up merchants, whose resentment at being saddled with a "Rupert" – an officer – in one of their beds is tempered by the endless fun to be had at his expense.
As the drama unfolds, we delve deeper into these assorted characters, and share their frustrations, their fears and their laughs in the enforced intimacy of the hospital. We see no women – Hatchet-Face a formidable off-stage presence only – and no staff, except the orderlies who come on for the scene changes. This gives a palpable sense of isolation from the world, made worse in hindsight by the lack of mobile phones and the internet. Contact magazines …
Jolyon Coy is excellent as the outsider – unsure of himself, of his vocation, desperate to fit in as a man, not just an officer. They will keep calling him Sir, despite the joshing and the obvious dislike of all he stands for.
Lewis Reeves gives a brilliantly touching performance as Ian, who is the most obviously affected by his injuries, but who, predictably perhaps, makes the most complete recovery. Mick, superbly slow on the uptake, was Matthew Lewis.
Of the understudies we saw, I was particularly impressed with Matthew Forsythe's angry Ulsterman Keith; Edward Grace was very convincing, too, as Parry, deprived of his toes and a chance to join the paras. The play ends with a heartrending speech from the outwardly confident Joe [understudy Sam Nicholl], who survived the Hyde Park bombing with just a finger missing, but who will bear deeper scars for the rest of his life.
Lewis saw a military hospital from the inside, and the piece burns with authenticity, both in the banter and in the blazing anger. These men, we feel, will never recover from their experience of warfare, and the Army, a family to them, and the real villain here.
This impressive revival runs at the Duchess till December 15. Various deals available; well worth a look.