There are some obvious parallels between Gerald Sibleyras’ Heroes and Yazmin Reza’s Art which also found its London home in Wyndham’s Theatre a couple of years ago. The three man cast and the gentle French humour are the main similarities, but the response of the audience, howling with laughter at the most mildly amusing line, out of a sense of obligation as much as anything else, also brought to mind Reza’s severely overrated play.
In its favour Heroes is much less high-concept than Art was with its strong central device, the white canvas. Gustave, Henri and Philippe are long-term residents in a veterans’ hospital in the French countryside. It’s 1959 but the men live in a world unpunctured by passing time, bickering gently amongst themselves. Henri has only one leg, a head injury has left Philippe prone to fainting fits and, though Gustave looks superficially fine, the thought of leaving the hospital clearly terrifies him. So the men spend their days taunting the nuns who look after them and making vague plans of escape.
Translated from the French by Tom Stoppard, the play got of to a sluggish start, though this was through no fault of the cast who were hindered by, not one, but two mobile phones going off in the circle. Once it hit its stride however the jokes flowed freely enough, director Thea Sharrock milking considerable humour from incidents involving a garden hose and a concrete dog. Unfortunately that’s all their was to it: gentle comedy spiked with inevitable pathos; no revelation, no real emotional hook.
What rescued Heroes from its own whimsy were the combined talents of a trio of men who are arguably amongst the UK’s best actors: John Hurt was predictably excellent as the stubborn and angry Gustave. Richard Griffiths (Uncle Monty in Withnail, Uncle Vaughn in Harry Potter, now alarmingly mountainous) gave an incredibly subtle performance as Henri, a deep sense of sadness detectable underneath his every action. And as Philippe, Ken Stott more than held his own against the other two, displaying excellent comic timing and investing what could have been a one-note character with real poignancy; it really makes you wish he was more than just the default casting option for TV shows about emotionally troubled policemen. He’s clearly capable of much more.
There’s only so much good performances can achieve and while the play had its endearing moments it floundered in other areas. A certain amount of repetition is necessary to convey the men’s sheltered existence but still Heroes feels longer than a play with a running time of only an hour and half has a right too. The set, with its vibrant blue sky, seems needlessly elaborate. And the use of distant flying birds as a symbol for liberation crosses so far over the line into clich it deserves some kind of prize.
Yet for all its flaws the line-up is truly first class and Heroes is worth seeing for that reason alone; the play itself however remains a candyfloss confection – all sugar and air – and no amount of good acting ever really masks that fact.