What to do on an unexpectedly free Wednesday afternoon when everyone else I know is otherwise engaged? This revival of Jonathan Lewis’s award winning 1993 play has a great cast, well I’d heard of half of them, and seems to be getting good word of mouth. Plus I’d been incredibly moved by last year’s Journey’s End and much of the same creative team has reunited to work on this production, notably director David Grindley.
Taking my seat early, as I don’t want to be perceived as having a problem by downing my usual vodka and tonics in the bar solo, a fantastic era defining soundtrack of my youth assaults me and the other white haired audience members. Ranging from the Smiths to XTC and Elvis Costello to the Clash before settling on the Jam’s Eton Rifles, this is the perfect auricular scene setting. Unfortunately the volume is a tad loud for a few of those in the front stalls whose teenage years were defined by Alma Cogan and Frankie Laine and who promptly relocate to otherwise empty seats at the rear.
Based on Jonathan Lewis’s own experiences in a military hospital, the drama surrounds 5 grunts and an officer-in-waiting (a PO - Potential Officer) with various ailments in a ward in Woolwich in 1984.
With some long-term residents, Keith and Joe, Cian Barry and Laurence Fox, displaying signs of becoming institutionalised, the arrival of Jolyon Coy’s Potential Office Menzies threatens to upset the balance of the pecking order. No matter how hard Menzies implores his fellow inmates to call him Oliver, none ever do.
The Troubles in Ireland rear their head and what it means to be Irish and British is briefly explored but never fully examined. Gradually it is revealed how the patients ended up in hospital and in many cases it appears that the army and the line of command is at fault. Laddish horseplay and blokeish jokes are symptomatic of an uneasy camaraderie which is eventually torn apart by betrayal and finally death.
Despite a few laughs, the end of act one's Beer Hunter game is genuinely laugh out loud funny, and an effort at an emotional denoument, I remained strangely unmoved and this is from someone who cries at The One Show. The ending is deliberately contrived to elicit shock and tears but so transparent an attempt at manipulation made me annoyed more than anything else. Also, as much as it pains me to say it, some of the performances are more amateur rep than West End. The only character that rings true is Jolyon Coy’s Menzies.
Maybe Journey’s End was a one-off and I should stick to big blowsy musicals, which doesn’t bode well for Saturday’s King Lear at the Almeida.
Booking until 15 December 2012, already a period piece and a pointless revival - Our Boys