Southwark Playhouse, London – until 21 July 2018
In the final tragic year of the Great War’s centenary, and 102 years (almost to the day) since the commencement of the Battle of the Somme, For King And Country reminds us of the mental devastation that war can wreak upon its combatants.
When Private Hamp, a British infantryman who’s served in the trenches for four years, deserts his battalion he is arrested and brought before a court-martial. A firing squad represents the ultimate penalty he potentially faces and it is down to Lieutenant Hargreaves (Hamp’s defending officer) to argue to the military court that the young soldier was unfit for combat, suffering from shell shock (PTSD in today’s terms), and as such should be spared a death sentence.
Opposite Hargreaves is Lieutenant Webb, the prosecuting officer (and, should capital punishment be decided upon, the leader of the firing squad too) to put to the court that Hamp is nothing more than a deserter who should be executed accordingly – not only for the purposes of punishing his wrongdoing, but also to serve as a disciplinary example to the ranks.
It’s a noble story – made all the more resonant in that it was not to be until 2006 that the British Government would posthumously pardon all of the 300+ young men who had been shot for desertion during the 1914-18 conflict. The tragedy at the Southwark Playhouse, however, is that the production’s potential pathos and nobility is squandered by its three leading performances, all who fail to achieve meaningful depth in their work.
Adam Lawrence as Hamp should hold our hearts in his hands, much like the court martial holds his fate. But he doesn’t – and Lawrence needs to dig deeper to deliver the subtle complexities of his tragedy. There is disappointment too from Lloyd Everitt’s Hargreaves in a performance that veers between bluster and incredulity, but never truly convinces as a compassionate yet clipped British Army officer in the early 20th century. Likewise, Henry Proffit’s Webb, who all too often descends into caricature. Where one should be moved by this harrowing saga, all too often the episodes of two-handed dialogue feel tedious.
There are moments of stunning talent that shine through the gloom. Peter Ellis as the President of the Court (effectively judge and jury) brings a perfectly weighted gravitas to the role, as Andrew Cullum’s Medical Officer O’Sullivan offers a perfect depiction of the distressingly dismissive “pull yourself together mentality” so prevalent then (and now) in avoiding the complexities of mental health. Eugene Simon’s Padre convinces too.
But for too much of the evening, director Paul Tomlinson is found to have deserted his post, allowing his leading trio’s talent to go AWOL.