Donald Freed’s 1987 cautionary tale is timely and provocative in the month of Trump’s inauguration
The theatre is a storage room in an LA veterans administration hospital. The date is 11 November 1989 – Remembrance Day. Three veterans of three different conflicts, emblematic of a 20th-century world torn apart by war, represent the soldiers scarred by their experiences in the theatre of war. Sporting poppies, they prepare in this makeshift waiting room to be decorated for valour. Private Leslie R Holloway, who saw service (and unnamed horrors) during World War I, is slumped in a wheelchair when Sergeant John MacCormick Butts breezes into the room in his brash suit. His voice is even louder as he whiles away the time by cheerily proving that his prowess at the piano is equal to his prowess in World War II, accompanying himself reprising rousing ditties from different conflicts, from Keep the Home Fires Burning to Over Here. His best endeavours are not enough to rouse Holloway, however, so it’s a relief when the immaculate, dapper figure of Colonel Walter Kercelik marches smartly into the room, so highly decorated during the Viet Nam War that he’s appeared on the cover of Time Magazine.
What follows is an unravelling that is as unpredictable as it is terrifying, until it becomes apparent what deep psychological traumas all three men have endured. The sort of damage evident in Holloway’s slouched form is disguised by Butts, with his over-cheerful bonhomie, and Kercelik with his extraordinary outward self-control, encyclopaedic retention of facts and glowing efficiency.
Freed’s play is an eloquent exposé of the failure of doctors and the forces’ authorities to recognise and treat the psychological damage of war, from shell shock to post-traumatic stress damage. His writing is vividly authentic and, set as an unnamed newly successful presidential candidate is about to take advantage of a PR opportunity to meet these heroes, his chillingly clever story assumes a telling topicality this month.
Hannah Boland Moore directs her perfectly-cast production with finely-calibrated sensitivity on a set cleverly converted by designer Liam Bunster from that of the Finborough’s current main stage production with the simple addition of a huge stained cloth. It acts as backdrop to revelations by Charlie De Broomhead’s superbly and terrifyingly authoritative and precise Kercelik, which reduces Craig Pinder’s expansive and wonderfully irritating Butts to a jelly, while Roger Braban fulfils the difficult role of the apparently inert Holloway to touching and disturbing perfection.
Sound designer Matt Downing’s noises include Sousa marches played by a military band to counterpoint Butts’ more informal ditties, as well as a patchwork of confused tannoy announcements and more alarming sounds as the story reaches its extreme, but plausible climax. It’s just a shame it gets only three outings a week. It deserves a main-house run.
By Judi Herman
Photos by Scott Rylander
Veterans Day runs until Tuesday 24 January, 7.30pm (Sun, Mon only) & 2pm (Tue only), £18, £16 concs, at Finborough Theatre, SW10 9ED. 0844 847 1652. www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk