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saints and sinners of the stage and screen

PVT Wars
The Space
2nd October 2013

★★★☆☆

Laurie Wilson and Gary Wright as Silvio and Gately

Photography supplied by the Barebones Project

Iraq, Afghanistan, talk of Syria and a new Cold War, it feels like we've been focussed on nothing but war recently. But Vietnam wasn't one that the UK got involved with - at least officially - so on the face of it, it is curious that the Barebones Project have decided to stage a play set in the aftermath of the one major conflict which hasn't left deep-rooted scars on British remembrance. But James McLure's 1979 PVT Wards is a human story, rather than a historical one - it's a tale of broken men, soldiers dealing with physical and psychological trauma. The setting is obviously American, the era of that time, but the concept could sadly lend itself to any other period.

Director Naomi Wirthner lowers the grand arched ceiling of The Space and extends the stage towards the audience, creating a small white cocoon in in which Gately (Gary Wright), Silvio (Laurie Wilson) and Natwick (Jim Pople) live. The three veterans may leave the hospital at any time, but they're not ready to step out for more than a few hours. Harsh, fluorescent footlights reflect a bright light into the white space, amplifying the clinical feel of the environment. This also creates a marked contrast for the regular blackouts which signify the end of each scene, and indicate the passing of time. It's unclear how long the soldiers have already stayed at the hospital, and exactly how much time elapses during the play, but it's clear that the men need something more than just time in order to recover.

The quality of the acting is undeniably superb. Gately is our anchor, his slow drawl and slower wit creating plenty of humour of the "laugh with" rather than "laugh at" variety. Don't worry, Ricky Gervais' Derek he ain't. Rarely is Wright offstage, his character spends much of the piece tinkering with a transistor radio. Initially this is intended to be a kind gesture for another unseen recovering soldier, but Gately becomes fixated with his project, convincing himself that if he can fix the radio, he can fix America's problems and indeed his own. We laugh at his efforts, which are secretly sabotaged by his friends, but his sheer commitment and optimism also tug at our heartstrings. We want him to succeed, but like Silvio and Natwick, we also don't want to break up the trio. This also serves as a nice, if inexact, analogy for the US' increasingly desperate involvement in an unwinnable, prolonged conflict.

Production shot of PVT Wars

Photography supplied by the Barebones Project

In a way, the three men are like brothers - bound together by no choice of their own, and forced to find a way to make that work. They have an understanding of sorts, their common link their desire to get better, but equally, a fear of confronting the end of their journey.

If Gately is the anchor, Silvo and Natwick are tugging in different directions. Silvio is always flashing nurses and constantly spoiling for a fight. He doesn't have the social skills to cope outside the hospital and knows it. It's upsetting to realise that despite the bravado, he does know he will struggle to reintegrate with society. Wilson packs his portrayal with plenty of pent up aggression and sexual frustration, only occasionally letting the mask slip.

Natwick is Silvio's polar opposite, a well-read academic type, bristling with nervous energy and a sense of melodrama. He's got a good heart, but is the sort of person who makes it difficult for others to like him. Gately gets on with things and Silvio is naturally aggressive, but it's hard to understand why Natwick would have signed up to fight, suggesting he may have been unwillingly conscripted. The politics of the Vietnam War are never discussed, but in any case, we're left to see that all types of men may end up on the battlefield, with war not distinguishing between them. Any of them may fall.

It's a very worthy production - perhaps too worthy - but the pacing is slow, particularly in the first half. To an extent, this is necessary given the nature of the beast. Some of the injuries revealed are so severe that you are unsure whether the men will ever truly come to terms with them. There are definitely some moments where the production feels like a very average Chekhov - the sort of play that you feel you should enjoy, but isn't necessarily entertaining.

But despite these problems, it's worth persevering in the slower moments. Wirthner may not quite get the rhythm right, but she certainly gets the best out of the actors, the performances they deliver are truly compelling. PVT Wars is a black comedy with emphasis on the comedy, a tiring journey, but one worth making.

PVT Wars ran from 1st to 5th October 2013 at The Space.

Nearest tube station: Mudchute (DLR)



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