Jonathan Lewis’ tale of wounded soldiers recovering from the injuries incurred at war could have been written yesterday. That all too familiar situation is as hard-hitting on stage as the headlines that so often grace our front pages, providing a deep – and strangely funny – insight into the reality and suffering behind the shocking statistics.
In Ward 9, Bay 4 of the Queen Elizabeth Military Hospital in Woolwich, the walls are coloured a dusty teal and everything else, from the beds to the TV, sports an unattractive wood-effect finish. This is what Keith, Parry, Joe, Mick, Ian and Potential Officer Menzies have to look forward to every day. It’s hardly the place of dreams. In fact, nightmares form the nightly itinerary for the six men who, scarred both physically and mentally by the atrocities they have faced in the field, are trying to come to terms with their injuries.
It feels wrong laughing at such a tragic situation but, though interspersed with moments of absolute heartbreak, David Grindley’s polished production of Lewis’ 1993 play takes you on a hilarious and – despite three boys being in wheelchairs, one on crutches and the other walking like he’s soiled himself – fast-paced journey through the ups and downs of their recovery.
It was never going to be easy for Matthew Lewis to leave behind his acting fame as J K Rowling’s bumbling Neville Longbottom but if there was ever a role to allow him to do so it was going to be this one… or so you’d think. Less the brave young soldier and more the bullied school boy, those well-known Neville traits trickle through in Lewis’ endearing portrayal of the gullible, lady-deprived Mick.
Fresh from the success of Laura Wade’s Posh at the Duke of York’s theatre, Jolyon Coy need not stray too far from his comfort zone either, his well-spoken pronunciations as PO Menzies providing the perfect contrast to the macho masculinity of the rest of the lads.
You can almost feel the pain emanating from Cian Barry’s body in his performance as Irish Keith, whose excruciating injuries seem to perplex every doctor in the hospital. Nor can you help wonder how joker of the group, Arthur Darvill’s Parry, remains so cheery even though his feet have been robbed of all but his big toes. Despite his clear authority over the lads, Laurence Fox’s sure-of-himself Joe is probably the most complex of Lewis’ characters with psychological wounds much deeper than those concealed by his bandage.
However, if it weren’t for the emotional bond and strength of camaraderie of the collective group truly making the production, it would be Lewis Reeves who steals the show as the paralysed and speech-impaired Ian, whose heartbreaking frustration at being unable to cope with simple daily tasks carves through the comedy like exploding grenades.
Fittingly, Our Boys continues the theme of this year’s Paralympic summer, bringing to the fore the bravery and determination of the country’s wounded servicemen. Unfortunately, as compelling as it is to watch, Beer Hunter never made it as an official Olympic sport.