Based on the late playwright John McGrath's own experience of National
Service during the 50s this incredibly well-written play set in the British
occupied zone of West Germany during the Cold War in 1954 is enjoying its
first London production in over 45 years.
As seven soldiers march onto the stage led by naïve boy bombardier
Lance-Bombardier Evans (Lee Armstrong) on his first night as guard commander
you can tell it's going to be a claustrophobic experience. Yet the set and
atmosphere so perfectly convey the boxed in dilemma of our soldiers that
the Finborough seems built for this play.
In a scathing display of anti-war symbolism the soldiers are ordered to
guard a redundant anti-aircraft gun. Armed with
redundant rifles (there's no ammo), they endure endless patrols and meaningless
midnight watches in below zero temperatures coupled with the mind-numbing
boredom of days with little much else to do.
Yet it's in this seemingly uneventful environment that some of the most
fascinating character interactions take place. You would expect that with
such a large cast (nine in total) there's a risk that the performances could be two-dimensional but due to the direction of Robert Hastie and
Ava Morgan's shrewd casting, that is far from the case.
Gunner Featherstone (Alex Warren) is the Cockney bully of the squad,
sniffing out the weak and mercilessly taunting them for it. Evans'
ineffectual jobsworthy commands are an obvious target for mockery, along with
Gunner Rowe (Michael Shelford), whose Cornish accent and head-in-the-clouds
charming passivity is endearing but not becoming of a soldier.
But Featherstone's met his match in our dark protagonist Gunner O'Rourke
(Charles Aitken), the only one of the group he genuinely seems to fear, and
the tension between them is delightful to watch. After O'Rourke bitterly
insults him Featherstone cops out - apparently he's too mad to beat up. But
this is merely a sub-plot, a tiny aside in a heavily detailed play laced
with religious and ethnic tension where we get to know and sympathise with
Phil Cheadle's Gunner Flynn is yet another highlight, representing a
different aspect of a soldiers' character. Despite being aware of the
futility of his duty he tries to hold onto the nobility of military service,
to do the right thing and, being the eldest, to nurture young Evans.
This play is so much more than a valuable history lesson. It could just
about be the greatest anti-war story that everyone nearly forgot.