It is set in “one of the most depressing places you can imagine”, remarks Matthew Lewis, one of the stars of David Grindley’s latest West End production, “Our Boys”. Odd then, that so much of Jonathan Lewis’ script is so uplifting, heart-warming, and genuinely really rather funny.
Set in a military hospital during the 1980s and originally released in 1993, Jonathan Lewis’ semi-autobiographical play charts the humdrum reality of the lives of six young soldiers recovering from war injuries of varying severity. Trying desperately to stay positive despite being faced with amputation, psychiatry and the ever present possibility of being dismissed from the army altogether, the six men must deal with their feelings of bitterness betrayal, and animosity whilst rubbing along together inside the tiny ward that, for the most part anyway, is as far as they can travel.
With a joke always on the tip of his tongue and a way with the ladies, Laurence Fox’s Joe is the ward’s definite ring-leader. He shares his space with leg injury victim Keith (Cian Barry), and the severely injured Ian (Lewis Reeves), shot in the head whilst on patrol. Arthur Darvill’s Parry and Matthew Lewis’ Mick race around on their temporary wheelchairs, and day to day life ticks along relatively nicely until the arrival of Jolyon Coy’s Potential Officer.
It is the lads’ half-hearted attempts to live in close quarters with exactly the level of authority they feel so heartily betrayed by that provides the real narrative arc of the play, with Lewis’ script drip feeding the audience with back story details and clues throughout. The script itself is poignant and moving, particularly in its final, surprising scenes, but is also playful and engaging, with the ward’s favourite drinking game and practical jokes particular highlights.
All the performances really stand out in this production. Lewis Reeves is heart breaking as the traumatised Ian, as is Cian Barry as the frustrated, angry Keith. Darvill and Lewis provide a great deal of the dialogue, retorts whizzing around as fast as the wheels of their chairs, whilst Lawrence Fox delivers the moving conclusion nobody saw coming. Jolyon Coy also gives a poignant, well thought out performance as the group’s well meaning but misunderstood outsider.
I love a dialogue heavy, darkly humoured play, and this production has plenty to offer on both counts. It manages to deal with difficult subject matter without the usual red flagging, awkward comedy that usually screams ‘sensitive subject coming up’, instead moving effortlessly between its comic and tragic subject matter. The set also deserves a mention, perfectly depicting both the sterility and claustrophobia of the ward world. It’s a real achievement as a production, giving an insightful look at the individual psychology behind conflict, whilst remaining charming, moving and clever.
If any criticism is to be made, it’s that we perhaps don’t see quite enough of certain characters as we would like, due to the ensemble nature of the show. It is a production which may later be well suited for film, as close up shots might provide a slightly sharper and welcome focus on the character’s personal sorrows and frustrations, some of which are lost in the crowd on occasion.
On stage, however, it is well performed, well written and well put together, and truly earns its positive critical reception.
Our Boys is on at the Duchess Theatre from now until 15 September.