Ross Ericson
Grist to the Mill Productions
Park90 at Park Theatre

Alex Ferris as Gary and Findlay Robertson as Mike Credit: Simon Annand
Alex Ferris as Gary and Emma Stansfield as Emma Credit: Simon Annand
Emma Stansfield as Emma and Patrick Toomey as Peter Credit: Simon Annand
Alex Ferris as Gary and Findlay Robertson as Mike Credit: Simon Annand

Two British soldiers, the night before they are going out to Afghanistan, are knocking back the beer. They are mates and they are a team, they were together in Iraq.

Gary, a staff sergeant bomb disposal technician, has just got back from two weeks training on Salisbury Plain. Mike, a Signal Corps sergeant whose job has been to back him up, hears a “bleep” jamming the wavelengths that might be used to trigger an explosion.

Mike has already been out in Helmand without him. He’s been briefly back on leave since his replacement partner in Afghanistan got blown up. Together both men have been at the dead man’s funeral. Mike’s marriage has broken down so he’s been staying at Gary’s house.

Alex Ferns and Finlay Robertson make them entirely real, whether here in a stylish kitchen in Blighty or in action, as we soon see them, hunched on the Helmand sand. Gary is a gravelly-voiced Scot, uncomfortable in his wife’s civilian world and eager to get back. Despite the men’s talk, Mike’s unfocused eyes and open mouth speak of ghosts and fears.

Mike’s picture of Afghan duty isn’t what you get from the MoD and the media: Afghan soldiers “stoned out of their fucking skulls but in a firefight fucking fearless”. He’s taking a signed photo of David Beckham back for an Afghan interpreter who wanted to play for Man United but got his legs blown off. Gary may think him a man who, like himself, has “a hard-on for this shit” but Mike can also refer to a dead colleague as having a “dry wit”; he’s not brain dead.

It feels as though dramatist Ross Ericson has got this absolutely right. He knows these people; he knows what he is writing about. That isn’t just about the risks and the adrenalin in the war zone, the injuries and the losses and their effect on soldier’s minds, it’s about what happens to their families, an army that deducts a proportion of a dead soldier’s pay because he was killed before the end of the month.

After that first scene, a Red Cap Captain, himself an amputee, has called on Gary’s wife Emma to ask questions. From now on that awkward interview is intercut with what actually happened in Helmand province. Military Policeman Peter is conducting an investigation. He may seem heartlessly probing but Patrick Toomey subtly reveals the man’s own pain and humanity while Emma Stansfield, as Gary’s baffled wife Emma, rises to a moving outburst of feeling.

There is an element of detection drama in the attempt to apportion blame or guilt, but it is the understanding of what this war does to people that drives this play and is its fascination. Harry Burton’s direction, which seems to follow the dramatist’s wishes concerning staging and the layered soundtrack of broadcasts, messages and warfare (created by Fergus Waldron), is finely judged and serves the material admirably.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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