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Not About Heroes (Theatre by the Lake - Keswick)

Stephen Longstaffe is impressed by this intimate and moving war time play

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Stephen MacDonald's Not About Heroes dramatises the friendship between the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, which began when they met in 1917 at Craiglockhart War Hospital for Nervous Disorders. Owen was recovering from what we now know as shell shock.

Not about Heroes

Sassoon had been admitted after publishing an anti-war declaration, the government preferring to treat him as suffering from a nervous disorder rather than suffer the embarrassment of court martialling an officer who had won the Military Cross the year before. The play covers the period between the first meeting and Owen's death a week before the 1918 Armistice, linked by narration from Sassoon in later life.

The play is centrally concerned with the two protagonists' journeys of self-discovery, and the role each plays in the other's progress. Owen begins the play as the apprentice, in awe of the older man's achievements on the page and the battlefield; however, the narrative structure's mixing the older and younger Sassoons quickly allows us to see that the dynamic between the two will shift towards something more mutually sustaining.

By the end of the play, at which we know Owen will die, it is clear that both poetically and as a person he is bursting into new life. Elsewhere, the play quotes the words Owen intended for the preface to his first collection – "my subject is war, and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity". The play, too, is in the pity.

Theatre by the Lake's studio is an intimate space, and both actors make the most of the audience's proximity to deliver subtle and moving performances. Philip Labey's shining-eyed performance as Owen encompasses both stammering convalescent and Military Cross-winning war hero.

Matt Addis suggests the horrors beneath Sassoon's world-weariness; his difficulty in connecting with others is given vivid physical life, and his narrative links and solo speeches are gripping, as are the poetry readings of both performers throughout. Martin Johns' design cleverly blends Flanders mud and Wiltshire country house, and takes advantage of the end-on staging to include as backdrop a blown up photograph of a war-devastated landscape.

The lighting and sound design, of Sanne Noppen and Maura Guthrie respectively, effectively suggest the various location changes, and special mention should be given to the haunting songs used towards the play's end. Jez Pike's direction nicely balances pacy, lively dialogue with slower and more profound moments.

Theatre by the Lake's Not About Heroes is a tightly-focused and moving production of a play exploring the lived experience and after-effects of last century's war to end all wars.

Not About Heroes is at Keswick's Theatre By The Lake until 5 April.

- Stephen Longstaffe