The artistic form of choice to express the horrors of the First World War was poetry. Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Rupert Brooke brought home the misery, terror and boredom of life in the trenches, and the recurring nightmares it induced. We have not, as yet, seen an emergence of a literary oeuvre of what history may well call the Iraq wars, but no doubt time will cure that. Could it be theatre? I’d like to think so.
Christmas is Miles Away, now at The Bush Theatre in West London, will then have a place, albeit, I’m afraid, a small place, as an early attempt to tell – if only from the perspective of the home front – of the effects of the first Gulf War on one young squaddie, a young man, still a boy really, who was messed up enough even before he arrived at the war.
But that’s not how Chloe Moss’s third play, which debuted at the Royal Exchange, Manchester last year, starts out. We are in the middle of what seems like a classic coming of age story. Christie (David Judge) and Luke (Paul Stocker) are ill-matched “best friends”; the former the teachers undoubtedly call “the smart one”; the words they use about Luke are probably unprintable.
He’s your classic inarticulate, angry, bottled-up teen – not that, in his company, Christie is much better. They communicate through grunts, shrugs and monosyllables: “nothin'”, “what?”, “yeah”. But Moss, and the actors, do a good job of ensuring that the audience still finds this perfectly clear.
Into this rather volatile, conflict-ridden relationship comes the inevitable problem, a girl, Julie (Georgia Taylor), who’s winningly naive, nervously adventurous, and well-intentioned. Inevitably, however, her presence means problems, particularly when a drunk Luke, thrown out of his own house, wants to hang out at Christie’s at 4am.
The play is set in Manchester between 1989 and 1991 and I’m told the Stone Roses’ first album supplies most of the music. (I was in another age and another country, sorry). The accents are strong, without being impenetrable, but the story is entirely universal. Indeed what it is doing other than setting out that these are “ordinary” teens is not quite clear.
And this setting out goes on for a very, very long time. The play runs in total (with an interval) for two hours and 20 minutes, which is far too long. There’s a fair smattering of laughs in the dialogue – “I’d rather be at home with a spliff than marchin’ ’round a muddy field with a pack full of spuds on me back”, says Luke spiritedly, as the subject of enlisting in the army first appears. There’s also some rather obvious slapstick – the woman hidden in the bedclothes, the vodka in the tea.
The slow pace of all of this might be meant to reflect a teenage world, but it does drag, as all of the obvious teenage landmarks are reached. It is only after the interval that the tension, and the emotion, really heighten, as Luke makes his way, the day after he turns 18, to the first Gulf War, one more cog in the military machine. Christie, meanwhile, is becoming a dope-smoking, post-hippie student, drifting on to nothing in particular. Finally, we get to a new perspective, some new ideas about a young man’s encounter with modern war. (All of the issues in the news, and the law courts, today are previewed here.)
The designer (Jaimie Todd) has done an excellent job in the small space at The Bush to create The Clough, the fragment of haunted wilderness in which the boys, and eventually the uncomfortable threesome, go to escape. The backdrop painting is a haunting witness to the darkest moments.
Stocker is a powerful, effective Luke. He manages to convey aggression and vulnerability in the same moment, being particularly effective in the final fraught, post-war scenes. Taylor is workmanlike as Julie, if a trifle to keen to play to the audience rather than the play, but Judge never manages to make much of the “artistic” Christie. Are there meant to be real depths to his character, or is he just mucking around with a subject that means he can get away with barely using his brain?
The difficulty here is, I think, in acting rather than writing, but it is in the writing that the major problems of this production lie. Moss throws in every teen angst and anxiety, every coming of age moment, from first sex to first break-up. This submerges the truly interesting and original in a sea of detail, from which it emerges when some in the audience – at least the night I saw the show – had already given up. A pity, for this playwright does indeed have something to say about the Gulf War, and Iraq in 2006.
Find more theatre and gallery reviews on My London Your London, a personal guide to the cultural life of the city.