The Theatreguide.London Review
Comedy Theatre Winter 2003-2004; Playhouse Spring-Summer 2004; Duke of York's Autumn 2004-Spring 2005; New Ambassadors Autumn 2005-January 2006; Duke of York's Summer 2011
Be aware that there were cast changes during the show's long London run and tours.
As Noel Coward didn't say, it's amazing how potent honest sentimentality can be. R. C. Sherriff's 1929 drama of doomed Great War soldiers is sentimental, manipulative, blazingly patriotic and war-justifying - and, as this beautiful new production shows, in the right hands it can be deeply and almost embarrassingly effective.
The play shows a group of young officers in a trench on the front lines, awaiting a major German attack. The captain is perilously close to shell-shock, keeping himself going with massive doses of whiskey and an absolute sense of duty.
Another officer is even closer to cracking, and is shamed into carrying on by the captain's half-bullying, half-confessional exhortations. Another gets by on purely phlegmatic inertia, while a former schoolmaster only slightly older than the others has become their kindly father figure.
The play consists essentially of waiting for the attack in which they will surely die, but along the way there are the arrival of a new lieutenant, a schoolboy friend and admirer of the captain, embarrassing his somewhat changed former hero; and orders for a particularly pointless and suicidal mission, from which we know someone is not going to return.
But what the play really consists of is an irony-free celebration of all that was thought fine and beautiful in the British character, the quality that sent young men off eagerly to that most dreadful and pointless of wars.
This is a world in which lines like 'It's the only thing a decent man can do' can be spoken with absolute conviction and, what's more, can inspire the panicky ready-to-desert man who hears them. It's one in which the two men about to go on the suicide raid can will themselves to think of something else and, in one of the most powerful moments in the play, get caught up in their chat about favourite holiday spots.
And it works. I've seen it not work, in other productions, but director David Grindley creates and sustains the play's reality beautifully, and draws us into its emotional power.
He is helped enormously by David Haig as the one they all call Uncle, who gives a performance of authority and calm that makes him not only the moral and emotional centre of the group, but also of the play.
Geoffrey Streatfield captures the complex emotional journey of the captain within whom honour and panic are constantly wrestling for supremacy, though his most passionate outbreaks may have a bit too much of the petulant schoolboy about them.
Ben Meyjes as the reformed coward and Christian Coulson as the new boy have roles that could so easily have slipped into cliche, but keep them real and sympathetic; and Phil Cornwell provides an amiably sardonic presence as the private-turned-cook for the officers.
The power of the play is sustained right through to the curtain calls, and I invite the most cynical to try to resist its appeal.
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