This faithful Sheffield Theatres adaptation of the late Yorkshire playwright Willis Hall’s first West End play is startling and shocking in equal measure.
The Long and the Short and the Tall tells the story of seven soldiers on a training exercise in the Malayan jungle during the second World War. They’re about to walk the final fifteen miles back to camp when they hear faint Japanese voices coming over the radio, which itself is running low on power after many failed attempts to contact HQ. They capture a Japanese soldier, who is treated as a pet and a punchbag in equal measure, but it never occurs to them that the Japanese might have outwitted them with a surprise offensive until it is too late.
Willis Hall was inspired to write the play whilst doing his national service in Malaya in 1957. The army banter is sharp and realistic, with much of the first act taken up with the young privates exchanging insults, revelling in the exotic natures of each others’ regional identities as though Britain contained the whole human race and the rest of the world were made up only of faceless enemy soldiers.
The chief protagonist, antagonist and rebel in the group is Private Bamforth, a thuggish but principled Cockney played magnificently by Tom Brooke. Both Brooke and Jason Merrells (fresh from being a ‘hairdresser at war’ in BBC’s Cutting It) put in standout performances amongst a great cast, who always manage to transcend the regional stereotypes given to them by the script.
Merrells plays Mitchem, the Sergeant in charge of the group, who alone seems aware of the real dangers present outside whilst his officers are busy arguing over the prisoner. As he comes to realise that the Japanese are coming in strength, he decides that the prisoner must be killed, in case he raises the alarm. This leads to a standoff with Bamforth, who accuses Mitchem of breaching the Geneva Convention. Unlike Mitchem, Bamforth is happy to have fun at the prisoner’s expense, but defends his rights (if not his dignity) whilst his colleagues bray for blood; Mitchem initially defends the prisoner, but will not risk the lives of his own men by leaving him alive.
By staying true to Hall’s brutally realistic portrayal of young soldiers in wartime Malaya, director Josie Rourke sets up an inevitable comparison with the lives of soldiers currently stationed in the Middle East. Though she never rams the contemporary significance of these events down our throats, the modern parallels are ever present, raising the question (as did The Romans In Britain, which recently completed its run at the Crucible) as to whether warfare really has become any more civilised in the 21st century.
Just like the performances, the staging is utterly convincing. The intense heat and humidity of the jungle is superbly re-created on stage, where the action takes place entirely within a small hut, the jungle seen through the rear windows, with rain dripping down from the roof and steam rising up through the undergrowth. It’s arguably an even more effective (if subtler) use of water on stage than in the aforementioned Romans, as the entire theatre feels impregnated by an intense and unforgiving dampness.
Lighting designer Neil Austin has also excelled himself again, capturing the passage from dawn, through dusk and into darkness in the rays that stream through the boards of the hut and are cut up by the humidity inside.
Whilst this is one of the more traditional British plays to come to the Lyceum, it is a powerful and skilful production that never puts a foot wrong, and provides a sobering reminder that World War II is still very recent history. It’s a stunning production of which Willis Hall (who died last year) could be justly proud.