Last performed in London more than 45 years ago, John McGrath’s play is a claustrophobic piece set in the harsh winter of 1954, in the British Zone of Cold War Germany. Exploring the ennui and desperation of a small group of soldiers over a single, frozen night, the Bofors Gun of the title is a never-seen emblem of the pitiful futility of war. An anti-aircraft weapon, it was obsolete from the moment it left the production line in 1942; by 1954, the age of nuclear fission, it was as relevant as a pike or halberd, a monument to folly and waste.
Nonetheless, the Royal Artillery section which constitutes the cast must guard it through the night in resentful shifts, bitterly taunting their superior officer: what if the Russians come, and swipe it from under their frost-bitten noses?
That superior officer, Lance-Bombadier Evans, provides the play’s moral focus. A nervy 18-year-old anxiously juggling the desire to be liked with the knowledge that his extra ninepence a day demands the assertion of military law and order, he dreams of his visit to ‘Blighty’ the following morning, when he will attempt to secure promotion. His men epitomise a generation for whom the triumph and anguish of the World War are the watermark against which every other experience must be judged, and fall short: their boredom is corrosive, and there is no call to arms or adrenaline-spiked dose of terror to relieve it. Evans – in his youth and naiveté, and his uncertain attempts to instil discipline not because the situation demands it but simply because it is expected – is an irresistible target for their barely-suppressed rage and resentment.
Chief among his tormentors is Gunner O’Rourke, an Irishman of terrifying romantic fury and self-destruction, as likely to take a knife to his comrades as to sing some old remembered folk-song. As the night wears on, and the men take their turns to guard the obsolete gun out in the dark, O’Rourke’s anguished nihilism overtakes them all.
As O’Rourke, Charles Aitken conveys a combination of Irish intellectualism – McGrath had a keen ear for the phrasing and cadence of the accent – and unnerving aggression. Gunner Shone, his closest friend – though by no means immune from his bursts of violence and loathing – is played by Samuel Taylor, whose gum-chewing London swagger is an effective foil for O’Rourke. I was less convinced by Lee Armstrong as Evans: at times it was difficult to tell whether his halting diction was that of an overawed actor or a frightened 18-year-old given responsibilities his shoulders are too slight to bear; but whatever the cause, the outcome was fitting. Oddly – and it perhaps is this quality that makes theatre so compelling a medium – it was one of the most insignificant parts which provided the most pleasure: Michael Shelford as Gunner Rowe – hapless, frightened West Country lad – is superb. Every roll of the eye and rueful curl of the lip seemed to convey some aspect of the character, and he effortlessly drew laughter and sympathy.
The problem with the play is that it must make a virtue of tedium. Those long moments where little happens but idle playing on a harmonica or bickering over a trip to the NAAFI must have the tension of a fist raised before a blow, and every action- even of a man lying half-awake in a hard bunk – must be charged with suppressed feeling. There were moments when I was unsure whether I shared in the tedium of the men, or was contributing my own; but for all that the climax – particularly when O’Rourke in his misery directly addresses an audience fearing the worst – was profoundly affecting. As ever, one leaves the Finborough wondering how its rediscoveries could have been left gathering dust for so long.