Being a critic is a harder matter than your writing teacher will ever tell you during high school. They will not tell you you will be sitting in the same room with Matt Smith, David Tennant and Billie Piper when Arthur Darvill goes around a stage in his best shape, in spite of the character he’s playing (or because of the character he’s playing, as I assume the effort they all made to play them is physically draining). They will not tell you you will see the Ugly Duckling in the Harry Potter films grown out of it to become a talented handsome theatrical Swan. It’s already hard enough to keep personal preferences outside of your judgement without all that, thanks. However, even though Gregory Clarke’s sound design clearly hits on my preferences and would probably make me reconsider my position on starred reviews to give Our Boys a 5, there’s much more to the play than that.
I have been to the edge of crying at least 4 times. I must have a rather Aristotelian connection to war plays, as this is clearly is one in spite of being set in a Military Hospital. The good old catharsis. I will never see a war myself and I feel privileged, so I add a bit of suffering to my life by empathising with soldiers. I think I quite fell in love with a character too, and that was how I really almost ended up like when Jack Firebrace died in Birdsong, which marks the only time I can recollect when I properly cried in a theatre. A tear or two went down in Our Boys (it has to do with said character), and the performances were powerful, but the overall tension of the play was not as strong as in others I’ve seen. It had, instead, the mixture of tragedy and comedy of a Shakespearean play. The characters were realistic, I would like to know from first-hand experience if a bit stereotypical, as I can recollect the pranks and such in every single war play. I am not against stereotypical characters, I am a big fan of Medieval theatre and the universality of 2 dimensions characters. Those weren’t, all of them had a bit of space (maybe Ian slightly less than the others) to show the behind the scenes of their part in the Game (sic.). To be back to the catharsis theme, there have been themes like friendship and loyalty and the value of lives that are beyond whether you sacrifice them for Queen and Country.
Not to be hard on new writing, as I have some friends in the area and I respect their right to give their own contribution to the arts through what they can do best, but it saddens me to know of how underappreciated this play has been. There are a lot of productions of newly written plays when there are gems in the mud like this. The comedy highlights were brilliant and easy to get even for a non-native speaker like me, while the political issues running quietly under the surface never hit as patronising propaganda against the Army. There is indeed the issue of the reward to the people who fight for us, and it’s hard not to sympathise with the soldiers, but while there is indignation there is never a lack of respect for the institution. It denotes careful writing and even more careful acting, as the pain was all embodied. It was Parry’s pain when his dream broke. It was Oliver’s regret in front of the downsides of his situation (oh, when he said “I wish you called me Oliver” in that way!). It was Keith’s determination in front of the wall he faced in his. It was Joe’s attempt at the denial of the tragedy he carried with him. It was Ian’s frustration in his recovery, and Michael’s in his (though they went through different paths, some issues were the same). For all that we know they might have been the only 6 soldiers to go through this in the Army’s history (well, that and Prince Harry’s Las Vegas scandal at least) so there would haven’t been a universal issue behind the unfair treatment of those individuals.
I know the play was written out of personal experience, but I can’t say if there was a political agenda behind it just from this fact and the script. I find it great when you can write a comedy that is political without having it overtly said. People can get that, and it spoils the result if you have to be openly political to pass your message. I have never been a fan of certain Royal Court authors, and of the trend of contemporary art to make statements. If you need statements to make people think about issues there’s a problem somewhere. I found only one flaw in the mise en scène, Cian Barry’s accent often sounded more German than Irish (and he is Irish!). Was the play cast by Gladstone Gander? You must be very lucky to have such a group of talents that work this naturally together free at the same time.
Our Boys is on at the Duchess Theatre (Aldwych) until Dec 15th. It stars Cian Barry as Keith, Jolyon Coy as PO Menzies (Oliver), Arthur Darvill as Parry, Laurence Fox as Joe, Matthew Lewis as Mick and Lewis Reeves as Ian, both at their West End debut. Cast and crew credits here.