The Sergeant (Philip Gemmell) and the Captain (Robert Totman), begin by discussing the plot at some length – an inexcusably static and untheatrical segment not helped by the Sergeant’s machine gun delivery and the Captain’s shaky grasp of his lines.
The privates, on the other hand, are well characterised, their banter witty and convincing. Unfortunately there are too many of them. Despite establishing several offstage spaces the director hardly ever allows anyone to leave, yet gives them little to do. For most of the second half there are between seven and nine people cluttering the tiny stage, pacing aimlessly and rolling cigarettes.
Then, in a moment unearned by any sense of mounting tension, the Sergeant pulls out a gun and the play lurches into a frankly bizarre climax. Everyone starts shouting. The widow Karensky (Sophie Kershaw) returns. She shouts too. There are two sudden revelations, both involving characters who have been either offstage or silent for most of the time, neither having any wider consequence. Apropos nothing the likeable private Tanner (Benjamin Forrest) is diagnosed with Dysentery. A minor character commits suicide…and that’s it. Lights down, curtain call.
It’s an odd reversal of Chekhov’s maxim about onstage firearms. Most of the metaphorical guns waved around early in the play are not fired at all. Madame Karensky’s attraction to the Captain goes nowhere. The Captain drinks himself into a stupor, then sobers up instantly. The Sergeant’s sexuality is questioned and then ignored. The feared private Bird (Tom Clark) arrives and turns out to be little more than an amiable bully. Madame Karensky and the local Nuns remain resolutely unraped.
To be charitable the meatiness of the situation probably needed more than the hour it had to be properly explored, but to veer so wildly off course is a strange way of dealing with the issue. Amazingly this was one of four plays picked from this year’s crop of new student writing. One can only imagine what the rest were like.