Originally written in 1993, Jonathan Lewis’ play, Our Boys, is based on his own experiences in the military – and it’s the veracity this brings to the writing, combined with a raft of strong performances, which carries this production.
For while David Grindley’s take on the play is often genuinely affecting, there’s something a little lacking about it, both in terms of focus and momentum. This is compensated for to some degree by an exceptionally talented young cast and the play, which is entirely set in a military hospital, sees them mesh well as a bunch of disparate individuals thrown together in unhappy circumstances.
Cian Barry’s chippy Ulsterman Keith is particularly compelling, as is Laurence Fox, all lanky grace and sly wit as Joe, skilfully managing his character’s transition from a laid-back operator, and seemingly the least injured of all, to a deeply traumatised survivor. Doctor Who‘s Arthur Darvill brings a nice edge to the superficially easy going character of Parry, a man far more ruthless than he first appears, and Lewis Reeves excels as the seriously injured Ian, shot in the head while on patrol in Belfast; his performance is both physically wrenching and emotionally draining, capturing both the frustration of his condition as well as a strong sense of the man underneath, the squaddie who still laughs at bawdy jokes.
There are some great stand-alone scenes: the ‘beer hunter’ set piece is a real highlight, balancing broad comedy with some smaller moments that are beautifully played, especially by Fox. Confining the action to one hospital room nicely delineates the limits of the patients’ world, but the piece as a whole is lacking in pace and the writing has a tendency to meander, particularly in the first half. I was never entirely convinced of the peril of being caught with the illicit alcohol (surely, if you’re already in hospital with a major injury, there must be a limit to how much punishment can be meted out?) and while there are some neat narrative reversals and surprises, some of the play’s revelations felt a little too abrupt.
Where the writing really comes to life is in its humour. Though often rudely funny, the play is also keen to show that beneath the banter and bluster there are genuine vulnerabilities to these characters; the scene where the locker room joking quickly dissolves as the men all rush to console a desolate Ian about his impotence is very moving, as is a moment of tenderness between Joe and Keith. But this is undercut slightly by the writing’s tendency to fall back on stereotype. The group are all too happy to pigeon-hole Jolyon Coy’s PO Menzies as a clueless posh boy officer, but the play doesn’t go out of its way to rectify this, it simply presents a different – albeit far more likeable – stereotype in place of the discarded one, and as a result you never feel you get beneath the character’s skin.
The 1984 setting – well signposted by a cleverly chosen selection of evocative eighties hits- is also slightly problematic, making the action feel at once topical and at the same time oddly outdated. While the plight of the men themselves is timeless – as long as we have armed forces, we’ll have injured soldiers, and an injury in what passes for ‘peacetime’ is no less terrible than one gained in war – I couldn’t help wonder what such a play would look like if it were set now, where Fallujah has replaced the Falklands, Basra taken over from Belfast, and the scale of the conflict and the number of its casualties have increased exponentially.