Jonathan Lewis’ Our Boys is set in a military hospital in Woolwich occupied by soldiers injured in the Falklands and the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Following great success at the Derby Playhouse in 1995, and then at London’s Donmar, David Grindley’s revival is undoubtedly timely. It is a beautifully crafted piece, and this production boasts an incredibly strong cast, but somehow the piece lacks the real anger or narrative arc needed to make it truly complete.
The ward is filled to overflowing with the banter of the patients. Laurence Fox as Joe, injured in the 1982 IRA bombing in Hyde Park, is the linchpin of the group. Fox gives a very strong performance; he brings a sharp wit and intelligence to his character while being subtly unstable, with occasional outbursts giving the audience a glimpse into the inner life of a haunted man. Cian Berry gives a magnetic performance as Keith, a Northern Irish private whose leg is becoming gradually more paralysed. In a strong cast, Berry stands out as consistently humorous, sardonic and charismatic in his performance. Fox and Berry are as admirable as their heroic characters, and they form the centre of the piece. Alongside these two are Lewis Reeves as Ian, Arthur Darvill as Parry, and Matthew Lewis (of Longbottom fame) as Mick.
Thrown into the mix is an unsuspecting Potential Officer Menzies, played here by Jolyon Coy. Nicknamed ‘Mingies’, it seems he is cut of a different cloth than the rest of the ward’s inhabitants. The atmosphere on the ward becomes darker and more dangerous as the friendships begin to fracture and loyalties are questioned.
Coy is convincingly naïve and unworldly as Menzies in comparison with the more experienced soldiers recovering around him. Menzies has not yet been deployed; in fact, his only loyalty to the army is the fact that they sponsored him through sixth form and university. He is in for an operation on his bottom before going on to Sandhurst.
The piece is undoubtedly authentic in its origins; it is based on Lewis’ own experiences in the very hospital the play is set in. The dialogue is some of the sharpest to be found on the stages of London’s West End, and Lewis has captured the wit of the squaddies with perfection. It presents with precision the instinctive contempt for high military ideals; as one character says, “You don’t do it for Queen and Country, you do it for your mates”. Grindley’s direction smartly balances the good-humoured joking and the more heart-breaking truths in Lewis’ writing, and keeps the play moving at a steady pace.
The trouble is that there is no change. The play has a clear message – that soldiers, once they have served their purpose, are thrown onto the scrapheap, and that is woefully unjust. After two hours, however, somehow the play doesn’t feel like it has gone anywhere. It lacks any sense of bitter anger at the injustices presented. It leaves an audience moved, but there is a distinct absence of true political passion. There are moments of explosive anger, but they are unsupported, and the tragic climax feels awkwardly tacked on.
This well-performed piece bears all the signs of a convincing indictment of the military machine, but disappointingly stalls before it really gets going.
Our Boys plays at The Duchess Theatre until 15th December. For more information and to book tickets, see the website.