Plays set in institutions, whether they be convalescent homes, army barracks, or prisons, invariably reduce the outside world to a life in microcosm, and so it proves in this fine revival of Jonathan Lewis’ Our Boys, whose setting is a military hospital in Woolwich.
It’s 1984, and sharing a ward in the facility are five squaddies and a PO (potential officer), all of them wounded either in the Falklands or in Northern Ireland.
The author, who himself spent time as a patient in the very same hospital, puts plot on the back-burner as he leisurely – and most entertainingly – concentrates on the personalities and problems of his six casualties of war, drawing much comic mileage from their interactions with one another. All human life is here. And, as conflict is the essence of all good drama, Lewis supplies it sparingly in the interaction of the quintet of squaddies with the lone outsider, the PO, who has a humiliating problem with his posterior.
If this cursory description makes the play sound like a comedy – well, to an extent it is, the funniest scene being a terrific set-piece in which the men parody the Russian roulette sequence in The Deer Hunter, this time using cans of beer.
But there is, of course, more to it than that. At the heart of the piece is a damning condemnation of the way in which seriously disabled servicemen – with injuries covering a spectrum that takes in post-traumatic stress disorder, severe frostbite resulting in the amputation of toes, and a bullet wound to the head – are treated after they are no longer of any use to their Queen and country. There is even a death – as shocking as it is unexpected.
Lewis, whose play was originally premiered in 1995 at the Derby Playhouse, followed by a successful run at the Donmar, has a finely tuned ear for barrack-room banter, and a palpable sense of characterisation. The most interesting of the squaddies is Joe, physically the least injured of the men, but mentally the most damaged. He’s brought vividly to life by Laurence Fox in a multi-faceted, nuanced performance.
Very much an ensemble piece, the play relies on its cast to elevate serviceable, albeit familiar material into something more than just the sum of its parts and is superbly served by all the cast, especially Jolyon Coy as the PO, and Arthur Darvill as Parry, the jokey wheelchair-bound frostbite victim.
It all comes together most affectingly under the excellent direction of David Grindley. Well worth seeing.