When it was performed as part of NT Connections back in 2012, The Grandfathers proved to be the break-out performance of the event, with even Artistic Director of the National Theatre Sir Nicholas Hytner calling it “the best NT Connections production I have seen in the last ten years”. So you do have high hopes for the show before you have even entered — but did it live up to the hype?
The Grandfathers tells the story of eight teenage boys as they head off to do national service. While national service in the UK finished more than 50 years ago, it is still common practice in some countries. The action begins from the get-go, as we are thrown right back into the characters’ stories, and see how they got to this position.
The consistency of quality in this play is really what pulls it together. The Shed is only a tiny venue, so there is no fancy stage set-up here. Together with Rory Mullarkey’s script and Jesse Jones’s direction, the show is brought to life fantastically by the nine-strong cast. All of the actors on stage are part of the Bristol Old Vic Young Company and, for most, the short run at The National is their first big gig. Their fresh faces really add to the play itself: if older actors performed this, the show could have easily fallen flat.
While all of the actors are great, there are certain characters who definitely deserve a special mention. Elmi Rashid Elmi, who plays Sergeant Tol, takes to the stage with an Idris Elba-like tough guy stature, putting his new recruits through their paces — but in the end all he wants is to make sure that they survive. It’s a shame that we did not get to see his history like the rest of the characters, but you can easily put two and two together when you see how important he is to some of the other characters’ stories. The other acting shout-out goes to Lorenzo Niyongabo, who plays recruit Zhen. Similar to Tol, he provides more of a father figure to the other boys, but provides the most comic relief in the play. His story is not revealed until right at the end, but it is the one that gets you in the gut the most. Zhen’s story gives the show the extra push to showcase what they are really trying to highlight — the fact that young boys are being sent out to fight.
The Grandfathers not only lived up to the hype: this performance smashed it right out of the park. It would not be surprising if the show makes its way to a more permanent run sometime soon, and I just hope they make sure to keep the original cast.
The Grandfathers played at the The Shed at The National Theatre until 13 July. For more information and tickets, see the NT Shed website.