In all honesty, the only reason I went to see ‘Our Boys’ was because the tickets were cheap; I was getting the overnight train from Euston to Scotland and had several hours to pass beforehand, so I went to the tkts booth in Leicester Square to find a bargain. Thankfully, it was a good choice – both hysterically funny and painfully poignant and a great one to review for the week following Veteran’s Day/Remembrance Sunday.
Our Boys is set in a military hospital in London 1984 and playwright Jonathan Lewis based it on his own experiences; 5 servicemen with assorted maladies have the relative equilibrium of their ward disturbed by the arrival of Potential Officer Menzies who has been admitted for the removal of a cyst at the base of his spine. Jolyon Coy, fresh from ‘Posh’ at The Duke of York Theatre, reprises his cut glass vowels and waddles around the stage in his pyjamas, trying jolly hard to ‘fit in with the lads’.
We also meet Keith (Cian Barry), a fiercely aggressive Northern Irish Ranger with a mysterious leg ailment and about as much charm as some rusty barbed wire, Joe (Laurence Fox) a smooth operator with an unpredictable temper and Ian (Lewis Reeves) who is in the early stages of recovering from a traumatic brain injury and gives a very honest performance of a young man trapped in a disabled body with all the frustrations that this entails.
Wheeling themselves in from the next room are Parry (Arthur Darvill – Rory in Doctor Who) a plucky paratrooper who lost his toes to frostbite and the gullible Mick (Matthew Lewis – Neville Longbottom in the Harry Potter films) who is in for a ‘routine procedure’ and provides some of the best comedy of the show as he desperately tries to un-arouse himself with thoughts of “Mrs Thatcher…blocks of ice…Mrs Thatcher on blocks of ice.”
The play itself meanders through the day to day lives of the 6 servicemen over a period of several weeks and in some ways could be said to ‘not really go anywhere’. Squaddie banter is rife and they pass the time listening to music, browsing lonely hearts columns and sneaking in beers when the nurses have their backs turned. The days and nights roll into each other, with the sleep talking varying from amusing nonsense from Menzies to full blown night terrors as Ian relives his battlefield experiences – the contrast in Keith as he angrily hobbles over to the bed to soothe and hush Ian back to sleep is one of the most heart rending things I’ve seen on a West End stage.
The first act is a bit long, but culminates with great hilarity in a game known as ‘The Beer Hunter’ (based on a scene from The Deer Hunter) which involves a roulette-like game of shaking up cans of beer, and opening them next to your head. The second act takes a darker turn as it emerges that one of the six has let slip their drinking antics, threatening military careers and pensions if this gets back to HQ – the finger is pointed at Menzies first, but the accusations fly thick and fast and loyalties are questioned. The whole play is largely a vehicle for the final speech by Joe, a harrowing and detailed account of the IRA bombing of Hyde Park in 1982 and the psychological wounds which are hard to heal and even harder to admit.
Our Boys is on at The Duchess Theatre, 3-5 Catherine Street, LONDON, WC2B 5LA until December 15, 2012.
The play contains frequent use of strong language, sexual references and some violence. It has been deemed suitable for ages 12+