Made in Colchester at the Mercury Studio, Colchester
for The Reviews Hub
What is the dramatist to say about war ?
From Shakespeare to R C Sherriff, playwrights have tried to convey the reality of combat. In our own lifetime, pieces like Not About Heroes and Our Boys have looked at the psychological aftermath of conflict.
Sandi Toksvig's powerful play, first seen in 2011, explores all these areas, while also examining the shifting relationship between two very different soldiers. Both of them have their demons, dark places in their past …
All the action is set in the heat and dust of a blind courtyard. James Catterill's substantial set [in the newly re-appointed Mercury Studio] has stones seemingly raining down behind metal grilles, basic benches. And body bags.
At first it seems as if this will be a simple investigation. A civilian boy has been killed in the Middle East. The major confronts the private, interrogates him about the incident, and the involvement of his sergeant, and his mates, the self-styled Bully Boys.
Eddie is a simple squaddie, joined up at sixteen, still only twenty years old. Oscar is older, a Falklands veteran, now a wheel-chair user. Eddie is casually racist. Stamps out the life of a spider. Oscar is more complex, sensitive and intelligent.
But then Eddie saves Oscar's life when their convoy is ambushed, and Eddie's mates are killed. Four “empty boxes” flown home to grieving families.
Dan Sherer's production brings out the differences and the common ground in the lives of these two victims of war. Sharing a bench, Oscar reading his book, Eddie playing a handheld computer game. Sharing a Scotch, climbing together to the top of Pendle Hill.
We discover a little more about Oscar's background – once desperate to be a dancer, he can no longer dance, nor even hear the music. One of the young boy's mystical appearances sees Oscar pirouetting to Pagliacci. And a little more about the boy from Burnley and the roots of his anger and his guilt.
There are some strikingly surreal moments – the relationship itself is improbable, though never feels so. And Toksvig makes sure we have plenty to think about in this 90-minute piece. The Falklands conflict has lost more lives to suicide than to death in combat. The soldiers we send across the world to fight our wars are often remarkably reluctant to fire at the enemy. And those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder often struggle to find the support they so desperately need. [Eddie seems failed both by the Priory and by ECT ...]
The two actors who bring this odd couple to life in this intimate arena are Josh Collins, fresh out of RADA, who captures the latent humour of the lad from Lancashire, as well as his inarticulate frustration. Fiercely defending his mates and the maverick Sgt. Payne, losing his mind - “away with the hills” - as Oscar has lost the use of his legs. Andrew French is the Red Beret Major, a man with secrets of his own, in a beautifully moderated performance. Pouring himself an elegant glass of wine, collapsing into the dust with a howl of frustration. We get to know, and like, them both as their stories unfold and their uneasy relationship grows amid the banter and the questions. The boy, Omar, also of course a victim of the conflict, is shared between Benedict Cable and Austin Humphreys.
The solo cello underlines the loneliness; the words conjure graphic pictures: the aftermath of the ambush, the boy running along the roof of the moving train, his world of war forgotten for a fleeting moment.
production photograph by Robert Day