The Conquering Hero
Orange Tree, Richmond
From 25 April 2012 to 09 June 2012
Review by Philip Fisher
The most enduring theatrical works about The Great War all seem to take a critical, pacifist stance. Like Journey's End and Oh What a Lovely War!, The Conquering Hero does not so much glorify the brave warriors as mourn them.
Allan Monkhouse is in favour at the Orange Tree following the acclaim accorded to Mary Broome and the Mancunian born in the mid-19th century is certainly a powerful polemical writer.
The curtain rises in August 1914 as war is about to be declared to contradictory responses amongst the Rokeby family who are a truly mixed bunch.
Monkhouse's protagonist and mouthpiece on this occasion is Chris Rokeby, played by Simon Harrison. He is a writer, his brother Stephen (Jonathan Christie) a parson and brother-in-law, Frank (Jack Sandle who ironically reincarnates on the other, Prussian side) a soldier.
Their views of conflict divide respectively between sad cynicism, religious detestation and horror and childish excitement.
The rest of the family are more uniform, greeting the news as a syndicate might a £10m lottery win today. They are wreathed, in smiles, as the young men soon will be more sombrely in the graves that beckon almost every one.
The moralising about war, especially from Chris in the teeth of opposition and accusations of cowardice led by sister Margaret (Claudia Elmhirst) and Miranda Keeling playing fiancée Helen is noble, in the most ignoble sense.
He battles the barbs throughout the second act eight weeks later too, finally cracking with unfeasible rapidity and signing up to go into the ranks, for no apparent reason given all that has gone before.
After the interval, in darkness we hear rather than see Chris suffering inhumanity and then enjoying kindness with equal terror in a German trench before returning home a broken man.
There, he refuses to be feted and belatedly discovers that Paul Shelley as his gung-ho Colonel father has never fought a battle in his life.
The Conquering Hero has an ironic title, which sets the tone for a couple of hours that are far stronger on speechifying and sentiment than plotting. At its best, when Chris faces up to the family, the fiery rhetoric is quite something but the contrivances that put him into a position to speak in this way can become wearing.