“The army is not a game”
Director David Grindley’s first London job was as an ASM on the original 1993 award-winning production of Jonathan Lewis’ army hospital-based Our Boys so there is a pleasing circularity to him being the director of the play’s first West End revival. It is set in Ward 9 Bay 4 of the Queen Elizabeth Military Hospital in Woolwich, with five soldiers at various stages in their recovery from injuries suffered in the line of duty who have their easy dynamic changed by the arrival of Potential Officer Menzies into the mix.
His presence shakes things up initially but he is soon assimilated into the group which kills the endless stretches of time with the recreation of barracks humour – strident banter that is close to the bone, searching for female company in want ads, illicit drinking games based on The Deer Hunter. But try as they might, they can’t escape from the ugly reality of their situation as their various torments rear their heads and it becomes apparent that this is a place where mental recovery is just as vital as physical recuperation.
Lewis’ recourse to the class conflict caused by the arrival of POM feels a little bit dated in its construction and content, especially as the counter-intuitive casting of Laurence Fox as squaddie Joe, the natural leader of the group, suggests a more contemporary sensibility around social fluidity. But what does come across strongly, especially in the performances of Arthur Darvill and Cian Barry as Parry and Keith respectively, is the very real opportunity for escape, advancement, self-validation that the army offers for young men, disaffected or otherwise. The strength of the brotherhood that emerges as they help each other through personal demons is convincingly written and achingly well portrayed.
That camaraderie is severely tested as the mood darkens in the second half with loyalties being stretched to breaking point, and if the writing turns a little schematic in its neatness, it is more than redeemed by a killer final scene – Fox in truly scintillating form – that proudly wears its Purple Heart on its sleeve (to borrow a military decoration from across the ocean).
The play revels in its 80s references – John Menzies! -and Grindley directs in his unchanging hospital room set with a strong sense of the power of a stripped-back production that focuses on superb acting full of quicksilver shifts of emotion. The passage of time could perhaps have been illuminated a little clearer – the key measure is the emotive rehabilitation of severely injured Ian, Lewis Reeves with an excellently judged performance, whose rate of recovery unfairly ends up feeling a little rushed. But Our Boys remains a powerfully moving tour-de-force, a barely needed reminder of just how much we ask our armed forces to sacrifice for Queen and country.