Not About Heroes @ Barons Court Theatre, London

cast list
Dov Citron
Martin Scully

directed by
Ian Flintoff

A big gold star to whoever decided to make the war poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon a key part of the GCSE syllabus. If there was ever anything guaranteed to engage young minds with the power of poetry it would be works like Dulce et Decorum est, Anthem for Doomed Youth and Suicide in the Trenches. The years have not dimmed the raw power of their stanzas.

And with the revival of RC Sheriff’s moving First World War drama Journey’s End doing brisk business in the West End it seems a good time to revisit Stephen MacDonald’s 1983 play about the relationship between the two young poets.

MacDonald’s intimate two-hander charts the friendship of the two men from their initial meeting in Edinburgh’s Craiglockhart War Hospital where Owen had been sent with nervous shock and Sassoon had been consigned in an attempt to silence his anti-war views. At first Owen is in awe of his hero and Sassoon is brusque and stand-offish, but they soon form a strong bond.

Not About Heroes movingly depicts the intense relationship between two men whose lives have been caught up in the mess of warfare; it’s by necessity quite a talky play and, if it fails to fully convey the horrors these men must have witnessed, its only because such things are so unimaginable nowadays, if still worryingly relevant. It’s also a play about the creative process; one of the strongest scenes sees the two men composing Owen’s aforementioned Anthem.

As Sassoon and Owen respectively, Dov Citron and Martin Scully both give strong, well rounded performances. There’s an amusing physical disparity between the two – Citron is long-limbed and imposing, Scully sleight and comically moustached – that suits their characters. As Sassoon, Citron allows the soldier poet a streak of endearing arrogance, a tendency towards pomposity that somehow only heightens his charisma, though he occasionally overdoes the British bluster. And as the timid, sensitive Owen, Scully also impresses, a nervous stammer in his voice, eyes full of admiration for his friend and mentor.

Ian Flintoff’s direction makes intelligent use of Barons Court Theatre’s tiny cellar space, utilising the theatre’s potentially claustrophobic atmosphere to good effect, especially in the moment when we catch a glimpse of Owen’s night terrors. But while the size of the venue heightens the intimacy, it doesn’t allow for any of the brutal intensity that characterised the closing scenes of Journey’s End, and the emotional impact of Owen’s death – barely a week before the end of the war – is not as strong as you would wish. It should hit you harder.

As with Sheriff’s play the whole stiff upper lip thing, the intense Englishness of the pair, can be unintentionally amusing. But the strength of the poetry transcends such small matters and both actors deliver the verse with skill, savouring the words, and leaving you eager to run home and dust off your GCSE textbooks.

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