BWW Review: FOR KING AND COUNTRY, Southwark Playhouse

BWW Review: FOR KING AND COUNTRY, Southwark Playhouse

BWW Review: FOR KING AND COUNTRY, Southwark Playhouse306 men were executed for "cowardice" or desertion in The Great War, many of whom were suffering from shell shock (post-traumatic stress disorder). 12 years ago, they received a posthumous pardon - something to bring a little comfort to those with fading black and white photos in drawers - perhaps now on mantelpieces.

John Wilson wrote For King And Country 54 years ago, its heart on its sleeve, its story demanding to be told, veterans still alive to remember the War's many and varied tragedies. Paul Tomlinson revives the play for the first time in 30 years, on the centenary of the events depicted - and in a very different world. The question is whether the work still speaks to us. The answer is probably no.

We're in a court martial (with echoes of the movie Breaker Morant) in which Private Hamp is on trial for desertion having walked out of his battalion some four years into active service. He's northern, naive and nondescript, lost in a world of officers, procedures and accents far removed from his flat vowels and tongue-tied explanations. Ultimately, the accusations against him are based as much in his child-like commitment to the truth and his confused, awkward inability to fit in, as they are in his act of defiance.

On a hot night on a thrust stage with the audience visible as a backdrop, which wasn't helping, neither the writing nor the acting fully convinced.

As Hamp, Adam Lawrence overcooks the "innocent abroad", not helped by a script that asks him to repeat too many lines, his character stuck in stereotype even as we hear his backstory of military and domestic misadventures. He's a cheerful Tommy putting on a brave face, his faith in the officer class uneroded even by 1918, but maybe we need a little more development to fully believe in him. He recounts unimaginable horrors with his eyes down but is perky again almost the moment he stops.

The supporting cast - hamstrung by a script that is (obviously) uninformed by today's awareness of mental illness and even the inevitable comparisons with Blackadder Goes Forth - do their best, but there's something not quite working.

The "lawyers" (Lloyd Everitt and Fergal Coghlan) pace about the makeshift field courtroom in a style that owes more to American television dramas than the static British tradition with its tables and chairs and lack of melodramatic flourishes. The boots worn look all wrong, as do the haircuts, making disbelief hard to suspend. Most of all, the emotions displayed by the officers hardened by years on the Western Front look too sudden and too extreme in the face of what we are told continually is in an open and shut case.

That is the main issue with the play - it goes for the emotional punch (and there were tears in the audience, so it hits its target), but in doing so, it decontextualises the action. There's a bit of heavy-handed "What if every one of the poor bloody infantry cried shell shock?" dialogue (from a doctor plainly suffering from PTSD himself) but, instead of that question being central to the dilemma, it feels tacked on. We are too soon back with the stock northern, nice but dim lad (metaphorically) walking towards the machine guns.

In 1964, the play's heart was in the right place and it still is today. But in 2018, we need a more sophisticated approach to the material, updating either the script or the staging, to say much more about those terrible events of 100 years ago.

For King And Country continues at Southwark Playhouse until 21 July.

Photo Alex Brenner.

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