It’s not often that I feel the need to well up in public, but I couldn’t help myself in the closing scenes of Jonathan Lewis’ play, Our Boys, last weekend. The play considers both the physical and psychological impact of life in the armed forces, and unsurprisingly struck a chord with its Remembrance weekend audiences.
Although originally produced in 1993 and set against a backdrop of the Northern Ireland Troubles, Our Boys is far from limited to its context, and translates well to a contemporary audience. Based largely on Lewis’ own experiences, the play narrates the stories of five servicemen and one Potential Officer whose lives have been severely altered by their time “in the field”. As the play progresses, it becomes apparent that for many soldiers, the emotional impact of service runs deeper than any physical wound.
The play boasts a stellar cast, including Lewis’s Laurence Fox, Doctor Who’s Arthur Darvill and Harry Potter’s Matthew Lewis. But if you’re expecting to encounter a Neville Longbottom or a Rory Williams in this play, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Darvill plays a highly convincing East End soldier with a chip on his shoulder, and whilst Lewis’ character shares Longbottom’s naivety, that’s just about all they have in common. The play marks Matthew Lewis’ West End debut and he rises to the challenge with humour and conviction. Even Fox leaves behind his usual middle-class role, instead portraying a West Country Casanova with a traumatic past. But these well-known faces certainly don’t overshadow the rest of the cast: Lewis Reeves, Jolyon Coy and Cian Barry. Like Lewis, Reeves makes an excellent West End debut with his portrayal of Ian, a soldier recovering from a gunshot wound to the head. The progression of Ian’s character is something to look out for, with Reeves essentially playing two characters: the Ian before recovery and the Ian afterwards.
The entire play is set in a single bay of the Queen Elizabeth Military Hospital in Woolwich, in the spring of 1984. Changes in setting are not felt to be missing however, and scene changes add to the authenticity of the play, with stagehands dressed as hospital orderlies. Therefore, much like the characters, the audience never leaves the hospital, allowing Lewis to fully put across the physical and emotional entrapment of his characters.
Undoubtedly, the play is one of extremes, switching between light and shade in a matter of seconds. Fox’s character, Joe, is perhaps the best example. Whilst Joe might seem the most ‘together’ of all the characters, an intriguing twist allows Fox to flip the character on its head in the play’s final moments. Like Joe, Cian Barry’s character, Keith, also encapsulates these two extremes. Barry’s portrayal of Keith’s humour is faultless and his delivery of lines such as: “Apparently those disabled parking tickets are like gold dust”, will definitely tickle your funny bone. But beneath all the military banter there’s an unsettling seriousness that gains momentum as the play progresses. For me, Barry’s ability to switch from humour to vulnerability, to portray light and dark side by side, captured the essence of the whole play.
Our Boys might not be the most polished piece of theatre, but it unquestionably portrays the nitty-gritty of life in the armed forces. Both poignant and comical, Our Boys is a fresh and inspiring play with a highly convincing and sympathetic cast.
Our Boys is booking until the 15 December. Tickets can be found here.