Events While Guarding the Bofors Gun

John McGrath
Pennard Road Productions
Finborough Theatre

Events While Guarding the Bofors Gun: Michael Shelford as Gunner Rowe, Charles Aitken (Gunner O'Rourke), Mark Stanley (Gunner Crawley) and Greg Tannahill as German civilian. Credit: Michael Graham
Events While Guarding the Bofors Gun: Charles Aitken as Gunner O'Rourke and Lee Armstrong as Lance-Bombardier Evans Credit: Michael Graham
Events While Guarding the Bofors Gun: Lee Armstrong as Lance-Bombardier Evans Credit: Michael Graham

First produced at Hampstead Theatre in 1966 this was only the second of McGrath’s stage plays, though he had already made his mark as a writer for television, especially the ground breaking Z Cars series. It is set on a British Army base in the British Zone of Germany in February 1954 when McGrath himself was a National Serviceman. No doubt it draws on his own experience as a military conscript during those years of the Cold War.

It centres on a mix of National Service and regular soldiers of the Royal Artillery under the command of a Lance Bombardier who are on duty guarding a gun park and its ancillary facilities, fuel store, trucks etc on a freezing cold night. It is the first time Lance Bombardier Evans has been in charge of a guard detail. He makes an unlikely soldier and he is not too sure of the ropes but desperate to have it pass off smoothly because he expects to go back to Britain the next day for reassessment as officer material.

Evans is lumbered, not just with a bolshie set of privates but with one in particular who is a self-destructive Irishman: Gunner O’Rourke, belligerent and bitter. Evans is frightened of them and they are going to give this jumped-up wimp a hard time. For a start it is pay day and they want to sneak off and collect their cigarette issue from the NAAFI. Having sent one pair off on guard duty he lets the next pair go off to collect them and then he can hardly say no to the next pair. Will they be back before they should be on duty and before the duty officer turns up for inspection? Just what has he let himself in for? He has pretty well thrown out the rule book for if he puts any of them on a charge it could snarl up his leaving tomorrow and his possible future.

This is a fascinating picture of the way National Service threw blokes of different background together, a shocked awakening for many and not just those from sheltered backgrounds, of the motives that made some want to be regular soldiers with a life where decisions are made for you, and of the frustrations that build up in such an environment. Once having established this situation the play keeps making the situation more disastrous. As it becomes increasingly certain that they can’t get through the night without serious trouble you still wonder who is going to put who most in trouble.

Terry Evans is a Grammar School boy, probably a beneficiary of the 1944 Education Act but Lee Armstrong’s performance makes it quite clear that he hasn’t the background that might give him the confidence or the arrogance to cope. He only begins to feel comfortable when chatting away from the others with Gunner Bill Flynn, an older guy who befriends him who has refused any promotion. This is a solid performance from Phil Cheadle: tough and self-contained but with a humanity Evans lacks. At one point he reveals that is father was shot and you don’t believe it was by the enemy. It is a performance that makes you want to know more. Hard information is similarly thin about mad man O’Rourke: a sectarian Catholic, violent, a heavy drinker who then goes off the rails but essentially someone who can’t take any more of the pointlessness of this life. It is a bravura performance from Charles Aitken, both frightening and touching.

This is a play about men in a world where a pint, a fag or an hour with a tart take on most importance (and skiving of course, though that’s not something McGrath deals with). It’s not about Cold War strategies or a plea for pacifism but it is about that awful waste of lives in pointless activity. These men don’t spend the days painting stones white as some did but, as O’Rouke reveals in his final outburst, it is world where soldiers who don’t even have live ammunition are guarding a piece of equipment that has been obsolete almost since it came into service and that is useless against the fast aircraft that it would be trained on. A pretence of defence for which they are spending the night exposed to the chill winds that sound designer Tom Meehan makes seem all too real.

Director Robert Hastie gets good performances from all his cast and designer James Perkins crams everything from multi-bunked guard hut to perimeter fence into this compact theatre. Ten years after McGrath's death and over 45 years since this play was last seen in London this is a worthwhile revival. I hope it we may see more of his plays brought to life again in the near future.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton