Review: For King and Country
Image: Dilated Theatre Company
Lloyd Everitt - Lieutenant Hargreaves
Adam Lawrence - Private Hamp
Eugene Simon - Padre
Peter Ellis - President of the Court
Henry Proffit - Lieutenant Webb
Fergal Coghlan - Lieutenant Midgley
Andrew Cullum - Medical Officer O'Sullivan
Cameron Robertson - Corporal of the Guard
Nikolas Salmon - Orderly Officer
Thomas Weit - Guard Private
1918. The Western Front.
Private Hamp, a young working-class soldier from the North of England, has been in the frontline of a bloody battlefield for three years.
One day he decides to walk away …
This tense court-room drama, set during the final months of the Great War, follows the young shell-shocked Hamp's trial for desertion and his fight for his right to live.
His defending officer, lawyer, Lieutenant Hargreaves, must face a seemingly insurmountable challenge - to save a young soldier from the firing squad.
Will Private Arthur Hamp be found innocent and released with his life or will he become yet another casualty of the unforgiving and relentless war machine?
John Wilson's brilliant script was first performed in 1964 starring Richard Briers, Leonard Rossiter and John Hurt and was later adapted into the BAFTA nominated film King and Country with Tom Courtney, Dirk Bogarde and Leo McKern.
Dilated Theatre's production marks the long-overdue return of For King and Country to a London stage for the first time in over 40 years.
This forgotten classic has been powerfully re-imagined for the stage by director Paul Tomlinson (Force and Hypocrisy, Raising Hell, The Young Vic; Tommy, Downright Hooligan, West End; Orphans, Southwark Playhouse) and designer Jacqueline Gunn (The Dillen, RSC; The Pocket Dream, Nottingham Playhouse and West End).
In support of the Royal British Legion and as part of the Imperial War Museum Centenary Partnership, this production proudly commemorates the centenary of the end of the First World War.
Almost 100 years after the end of the horrendous Great War (28 July 1914 to 11 November 1918) it's fitting that we remember those who lost their lives in battle, as well as those who survived the conflict but for whom life would never be the same again.
But there's also another group who deserve to be remembered - those whose lives were taken by their own side.
During the First World War, 306 British and Commonwealth soldiers were executed for desertion or cowardice.
Though that figure might seem alarmingly high, between 1914 and 1920 more than 20,000 servicemen were convicted of offences that carried the death penalty with some 3,000 sentenced to be killed, though just 10% were actually executed.
John Wilson's play takes us through the period leading up to the trial of one Private Arthur Hamp, arraigned on a charge of desertion, the trial itself and its immediate aftermath.
For the most part, then, this is a courtroom drama with a considerable slice of the action given over to proceedings in a military court martial.
Originally entitled Hamp, the play is based on James Lansdale Hodson's 1955 novel Return To The Wood.
A film based on the novel and the play followed in 1964 starring Dirk Bogarde, Tom Courtenay and Leo McKern.
From left: Adam Lawrence (Hamp) and Lloyd Everitt (Hargreaves) - photo (c) Alex Brenner
Private Hamp is an unsophisticated and uneducated young man from a cotton town in the north of England.
Though he's able to brew a good cup of tea, has been at the front for more than 3 years and is not "a grouser", his commanding officer finds him little more than an irritating nuisance.
Hamp is charged with desertion after he wandered off the field of battle after being almost blown up by a bomb, spattered with the dismembered detritus of his chum's body and subsequently sucked into a muddy crater.
He's defended by Lloyd Everitt's Lieutenant Hargreaves who wants to help Hamp but finds it difficult as the accused is intellectually incapable of understanding how to explain his motivations or the dire consequences he faces.
Almost from the start, we can pretty-much guess the outcome since the singular issue for the British Army was deterring others from refusing to 'go over the top' or scurrying away from the battlefield to save their lives.
That doesn't prevent us from being engrossed by the tension of proceedings during the court martial.
So much so that when Hamp is giving evidence and refers to what his lawyer has "told him to say", we hear audible gasps from the audience.
The trial may be where the meat of the play and the tension lies, but it's in the aftermath where we witness more painfully moving events.
Though Jacqueline Gunn's design ably provides the appropriate austere and bleak wartime ambience - leafless bomb-blasted trees, duckboards and a large mural of a devastated battlefield, there's insufficient evidence in Paul Tomlinson's production of a general war-weariness afflicting the characters, many of whom would have been subjected to continual shelling, lousy living conditions and endless fighting for months if not years.
In fact, many of them look like they've just popped out from a grooming visit to an adept battalion barber, sporting very neat hairstyles.
However, Andrew Cullum's overwrought medical officer does offer some symptoms of psychological exhaustion when he almost breaks down during intense questioning from Hargreaves.
And Henry Proffit's highly strung Lieutenant Webb similarly displays underlying mental vulnerability, though he is also wracked by the unenviable impending task of leading the firing squad.
John Wilson's still powerful and compelling play makes significant points.
Even at the time when the play is set, the authorities were well aware of "shell shock" (now more generally described as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) which afflicted many soldiers during the Great War - but that didn't stop the army killing their own soldiers.
However, the concept of "mental health" seems to have been unknown at the time, even if the issue of soldiers suffering from "nerves" was widely recognised along with the idea that recruits of all ranks had to 'fight their own war'.
The issue of those executed by the British Army during World War 1 does have a resolution of sorts - they were all pardoned in 2006, but that can only be at best lukewarm comfort for their families.
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ActDrop listing for Southwark Playhouse
Our show listing for For King and Country
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