In some respects, Our Boys is a conventional “soldier” play, with banter, bullying, and even the token “nice guy” officer – turns out he’s Jewish, and not all that posh – who’s volunteered to slum it with the real men. And, until the tension builds in the second act over who might have blabbed about the beers, it lacks dramatic momentum.
But, as Lewis writes out of personal experience as a potential officer struck down by a debilitating bowel disease, and the piece is so immutably set in the early 1980s – crucially, after the Hyde Park bombing – the authenticity becomes its best argument.
And following The Two Worlds of Charlie F at the Haymarket and in Edinburgh, and Bully Boy at the new St James, the play is renewed as fashionably highlighting problems around the post-traumatic stress and rehabilitation of the seriously wounded, only this time the theatre of war is Northern Ireland, not Afghanistan or Iraq.
One soldier here, the vividly articulated Ulster ranger Keith of Cian Barry, might even be a phantom victim. Another, Lewis Reeves’s severely disabled rifleman Ian (making a miraculous recovery through the last scenes) seems lucky compared to Matthew Lewis’ callow gunner Mick, who’s been savagely circumcised and then submitted to the prick-teasing pranks of his mates’ false love letters.
Jolyon Coy holds the ring smoothly as the author’s surrogate “potential” officer, painfully infected down below, while the natural group leader, trooper Joe – the equivalent of the Peter O'Toole role in The Long and the Short and the Tall – is played with an impressive mixture of physical authority and psychotic danger by Laurence Fox.
Fox has me slightly foxed. I can’t decide if his strange, roof-of-the-mouth West Country accent is caused by the character’s shell shock in Hyde Park or the actor’s self-conscious research. Still, it’s a very fine and charismatic performance; the naughty boy’s even seduced a major’s wife who’s further down the corridor and wasn’t expecting that sort of treatment for in-growing toenails.
The play ends on Joe’s startling descriptive speech about that incongruous bandstand atrocity, while one can only wince at the thought of what happened to Arthur Darvill’s jumpy East End fusilier Parry, deprived of eight toes and the only job he ever wanted.
Parry’s outburst is one of several riveting flash points, none more gruesomely hilarious than the “beer hunter” Russian roulette parody with fizzing cans, or indeed the impromptu private parts inspection that follows.
Come on our hosted Whatsonstage.com Outing to Our Boys on Tuesday 9 October 2012 and get your top-price ticket a FREE poster and access to our EXCLUSIVE post-show Q&A with the cast - all for just £30! Click here for details