“Look after your people – that’s the first law” says career soldier Danny as he endeavours to explain what happened in Helman province to his widow, Steph. That’s right. To his widow. Andrew Motion’s one-act, three-scene play (hisf irst, incidentally) is about the pity rather than the tawdry glory of war. Less banners (even the saluting ones of Wootton Bassett) and trumpets, more improvised roadside devices and the rattle of outdated, but still death-dealing, firearms.
It’s very far from whimsy or consoling fantasy, of course. Steph has no alternative but to move on – from her Army house, being now a single mother, to securing an equitable future for herself and her son Jack. We never meet him in the flesh, but outside the house so full of packing cases and remembrances of times past is Sam, Danny best friend and now his widow’s main support.
Confronted by Danny, suited as she last saw him in the (remoulded) flesh before the coffin lid was screwed shut, Penny Layden makes Steph’s whirlpool of conflicting emotions absolutely credible and ultimately very moving. You can believe in her ferocious mix of emotions – delight and despair, anger and grief, delight in the occasional daftness of the past and determination to protect Jack at all costs.
The interesting thing is that Jack (an assured Timon Greaves) has already encountered Danny, and is completely unfazed by the experience. He’s still at an age when “bang! bang! you’re dead!” doesn’t connect to the reality of fire-power, yet understands (on his own terms) how his father died.
Christian Bradley as Danny has the most difficult part in Steven Atkinson’s well-paced production. His finely-judged performance contrives to let us accept that troublesome concept of the revenant made concrete, so that we follow his analysis of the conflict which has killed him and sympathise with his truncated life.
It’s not for an audience, or even a playwright, to produce final conclusions about what could be – and equally, could not be – accounted “just wars”. The “Great Game” played out by the “Great Powers” over Afghanistan’s mountains and valleys has been claiming lives and creating legends for something like 200 years. Because this play isn’t going to change that is perhaps more, rather than less, a reason to see it.