Heroes (3 stars)

Theatre Royal, Glasgow, until Sat 2 Dec


Perhaps the thing that haunts most of us about old age is the fear of loneliness. The need to create human bonds, and the fear that poverty and isolation will prevent this is something demonstrated in our own society each time we see an old dear at the supermarket, basket containing three or four carefully purchased items, and wonder if they toddle home with nothing but the telly to talk to. The dilemma is not quite the same for three Great War veterans living out their days in a French military hospital for old crocks in this Gerald Sibleyras West End comedy, translated by Tom Stoppard, but loneliness aches away at their old bones as they banter away at each other, making do with the best company they can get.

It’s August 1959, and 45 years after the start of the great slaughter, the characters fester forgotten in a walled rural garden at the back of their infirmary, their time-filling badinage creating a cute, whimsical kind of humour. Gustave (Christopher Timothy) a curmudgeon to the last, has walloped one of the nuns who cares for him and seems extravagantly indifferent to even his closest companions. Philippe (Art Malik) is troubled by a stone dog in their sunlit folly, which seems to move now and then. In fact it does, at the playful instigation of Gustave. Meanwhile Henri (Michael Jayston) savours the last flickers of an erotic life by ogling the girls and teacher at the local school. They formulate bittersweet plans for escape, at least as far as the copse of trees a few miles distant.

Claire Lovett’s realisation of Thea Sharrock’s original production trundles along with a harmless kind of humour in front of Robert Jones’ pretty design. There’s a touch of Beckett about the disabilities of agoraphobia, bouts of unconsciousness and a gammy leg that makes each character mutually dependant and collectively helpless, and perhaps a stronger savour of David Storey’s beautiful, largely forgotten play Home in their quiet unspoken pathos, but the piece stops short of any big existential themes. Instead, it’s lent innocence by the historical context, where, bypassed by history, just short of the new era about to dawn, the characters dream dreams of flight to an Indochina now lost to France, and about to become an American nightmare. Their historical cul-de-sac lends charm to the play, but robs it of power. Still, there are three good performances, with Timothy’s grim faced stoic bringing a particular humour to all the whimsy.

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