Kicking off with sounds from the early '80s, the play opens. It's set in a 1983 hospital ward, where a group of soldiers are recovering from maladies ranging from circumcision due to constant infections (did he try washing?) to a bullet in the head with its ensuing complications. The characters all have their own separate and distinct personalities but have a shared sense of community being squaddies. This dynamic is altered by the arrival of a 'Rupert', a term used by the ranks to describe officers, and the story then moves to whether or not he could be truly accepted.
Whist it is a pretty boy cast, they are all strong actors that give great performances – not an easy task when you are aiming to make the audience laugh one minute and then provoke them into thinking the next. There are some great comedic moments here, like the Beer Hunter and Cian Barry’s Viet Cong impression, which, while very non-PC, will stick with me for a long time. (If you saw Stephen Wright/Muggsy in Dealers Choice you will know what I mean.) The onstage chemistry is strong enough to create believable banter, and whilst this form of humour is not to everyone’s taste, it had the audience in stitches.
The second act alters the direction of the play. The soldiers are in the hospital for a reason, scared mentally and physically by the troubles in Northern Ireland. I vividly recalled TV reports of the time detailing another killing in Belfast, the Harrord’s bombing, and the Baltic Exchange blast. In lifting the veneer of humour, the audience has to inconveniently confront the human costs incurred at the time. It’s unpleasant, but has been delicately and deftly handled by David Grindly’s direction and Jonathan Lewis’ writing.
With this, thoughts start to percolate about the role of soldiers and soldiering in our society. In the play A Few Good Men (a precursor to the film), this dichotomy is expressed by Demi Moore’s character, passionately trying to defend them because “they stand on a wall and say that no one is going to hurt you tonight”. Kevin Pollak views them as bullies. Here soldiers are stripped bare and are just a bunch of boys becoming men.
Dostoevsky said that the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons. Maybe its cost can be measured by looking at the treatment of those that defend it.
In the end there is silence and a certain solemnity with the audience unable to make a sound. Three curtain calls later they were clapping and cheering in full force.
I was lucky enough to catch some of the cast after the show. Indeed tthey are all a bunch of pretty boys, but very gracious, polite and good actors, to boot. Gits.
Second Degree paid for his own ticket.