Set in a French home for military veterans in August 1959, Heroes is the kind of play provincial theatres adore. It’s cheap to stage (only three actors and a minimal set), is gently amusing, and has the patina of classiness that appeals to petit bourgeois audiences.
Also, like Yasmina Reza’s three-hander Art, which Christopher Hampton translated, Heroes was penned by a little-known (at least to English audiences) French author – Gerald Sibleyras – and translated by a celebrated British dramatist – Tom Stoppard, in this case. For Heroes’ West End premiere – uplifted by the all-star cast of John Hurt, Ken Stott and Richard Griffiths, directed by Thea Sharrock – it won this year’s Olivier for Best Comedy.
The touring production’s programme attempts to insert Sibleyras’ work firmly into the tradition of great French drama, but, despite its Olivier Award-winning status, it is essentially the kind of “mollify the masses” fodder that gives suburban theatres a bad name.
Gustave, Philippe, and Henri are languishing in a military hospital controlled by a despotic nun called Madeleine. Apparently, Philippe even fears she will bump him off for having an unpropitious birthday. As they sit around nattering about nothing in particular, one suspects the author is lunging towards Waiting for Godot gravitas. Sadly, all he musters is an existentialism-lite version of Last of the Summer Wine. Also, the tasteful piano fills that segue the scenes are merely annoying.
As ever with Stoppard, the audience wheel out the “look at me getting this” laughter, but the humour is of the strictly sitcom variety. Consequently, lines like “if months were days of the week, August would be Sunday” fare much better than they deserve. There’s also a geriatric touch of Men Behaving Badly sexism to contend with, as when Christopher Timothy’s Gustave observes the occasional success of a “caveman approach” when seducing women. A work that asks us to find elderly men leching after 12-year-old girls endearing is hardly tasteful.
Narrative momentum comes in the form of a planned escape towards the line of poplars the men can see above them. Given the lack of intellectual stimulation on offer here, the scene at least contains some movement. However, the sepia-tinted slapstick that ensues is more calculated to depress than amuse. The show then limps towards a mock poetic ending that feels like a tacked on afterthought.
The actors – Timothy is joined by Michael Jayston, Art Malik, directed by Claire Lovett – know what’s required of them and acquit themselves well enough, but they aren’t given much to work with. And one can’t help feeling that the play is destined for theatrical history’s colostomy bag of entirely forgettable plays. Meanwhile, Robert Jones’ design is convincing enough, but is let down by some rather tacky trees.
Just as Kipling is the first resort of those who dislike poetry, shows like Heroes may delight those who find theatregoing a bit of a chore. Others may find this worth avoiding.