Not About Heroes @ Trafalgar Studios, London

cast list
Dan Willis
Phillip Buck

directed by
Caroline Clegg
Stephen MacDonald’s two-hander about the relationship between war poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen tends to be popular with fringe theatre companies because it deals with big themes: death, friendship, doomed youth, yet requires little more than a couple of military great coats and an armchair to stage successfully.

The intimate nature of the play also means that it’s ideally suited for the capital’s smaller venues. Having said that, Caroline Clegg’s current production feels rather awkwardly wedged into the Trafalgar Studios downstairs space; theres a lot of dashing about by the cast and uncertain hovering in corners that do the production no favours. This may though be down to the fact that this production, by the Feelgood Theatre Company, has already enjoyed two well reviewed runs in the slightly grander settings of the Imperial War Museum North as well as in Londons Cabinet War Rooms.

Fortunately, once the production warms up, any reservations about the staging or the slightly stiff opening sequence, quickly disappear. MacDonald’s play is subtle but engrossing, describing the growing professional and personal relationship between Sassoon and Owen after meeting at Craiglockhart War Hospital. While Sassoon had been hospitalised after protesting against the war, Owen was more overtly damaged, a victim of shell shock, still suffering the nervous effects of the horrors hed encountered on the front.

Initially amused be his young fan, Sassoon mentors Owen and gradually grows to love him in that distinctive stiff-upper-lipped English way (there are homoerotic overtones to the piece, but Cleggs production does not expand on them). He also comes to realise that Owen may well be the superior talent, and the play works equally well as a portrait of artistic baton-passing as it does as a protest against the futility of war.

Given its scale, the production depends very much on its casting. Philip Buck makes a solid Sassoon, though he overplays things on occasion. Dan Willis is subtler and stronger as the young Owen, looking the part with his slick centre-parting and pencil moustache, and able to carry off even the creaky scene when the older man helps the younger to compose what has become one of his best known poems (“Anthem for Dead Youth? No that doesnt sound right.”)

Clegg’s production works best in the earlier, surprisingly warm-hearted and funny scenes, as the two men get to know and like each other. As the play veers towards its inevitably sombre ending, she loses her grip a little and the scene of Owen and Sassoon’s reunion, while the latter is recovering from a head wound received on the front, isn’t as powerful as it could be. Owen, of course was to die on the front himself, just seven days before Armistice Day. Clegg doesnt allow this harsh fact to speak for itself and the production concludes with a montage of grainy First World War footage. Its an uncomfortable shift and the basic nature of the projection gives the piece an unwelcome air of a GCSE history class, but as you sit there watching these images play out on the back wall of the theatre, it does bring home the fact there are some lessons the world has yet to learn.

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