Review: For King and Country (Southwark Playhouse)

John Wilson’s play about deserters in the Great War is staged in London for the first time in 30 years

For King and Country
For King and Country
© (c) Alex Brenner

It's not too much of a spoiler to say that this play ends badly for Private Arthur Hamp, a deserter from the bloody frontline in 1918. Three hundred and six men were executed by firing squad for acts of cowardice or desertion during the Great War, where mercy was seen as potentially opening the floodgates for discipline to break down, and other soldiers to take the same exit route.

John Wilson's play follows the trial for cowardice and desertion of a young private. Driven beyond endurance by his three years on the battlefields and in the trenches, one day he simply walks away from the front. Quickly discovered and arrested after trying to board a train without papers or kit, his court martial swiftly follows.

Shell shock was recognised as a condition at the time, but borderline lunacy appears to have been a requirement to make what we now recognise as post-traumatic stress disorder a sufficient reason for 'cowardice'.

Paul Tomlinson's production captures the chill of the courtroom, where it seems everyone but the simple-minded prisoner recognises what's coming. Robbie Butler's lighting and Philip Matejtschuk's sound recreate the battlefield's furious roars, booms and flashes, and the immersive set by Jacqueline Gunn is a constant reminder of the brutal environment that led to the young man's loss of control.

As principled lawyer Lieutenant Hargreaves, Lloyd Everitt anchors the production with his earnest, and at times anguished, efforts to help his client escape the death penalty. Andrew Cullum bristles with contempt for the prisoner as Medical Officer O'Sullivan. Adam Lawrence's deeply poignant performance captures the simplicity and artlessness of Private Hamp, who longs only to go home. Peter Ellis has a masterly control of proceedings as President of the Court, while Eugene Simon brims with an earnest longing as the fresh-faced Padre who cannot accept the justice of the court's death sentence.

The production doesn't quite engage fully during the first half. But as the climax builds, and his soldier colleagues prepare poor Private Hemp for his final hours, a palpable tension fills the theatre.

This play hasn't been performed on a London stage for 30 years, and the revival by Dilated Theatre company is presented in support of the Royal British Legion and part of the Imperial War Museum Centenary partnership, commemorating the end of the Great War. And while the war itself has almost faded from living memory, its legacy remains with us 100 years on. The deserters eventually received posthumous pardons from the government. But not until 2006.