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 every personality.
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.
- Will Stone