Last of the Boys

Steven Dietz
Sarah Stribley Productions and Anna Haigh Productions in association with Alchemist Theatricals
Southwark Playhouse

Demetri Goritsas and Todd Boyce Credit: Ben Broomfield
Zoe Tapper Credit: Ben Broomfield
Wendy Nottingham Credit: Ben Broomfield

America’s war against Vietnam devastated communities across both countries. Its defeat discouraged for a long time successive American governments from waging other wars.

Steven Dietz’s atmospheric play The Last of the Boys takes us to the continuing trauma of that terrible war decades after it ended.

Two Vietnam veterans sit in front of a trailer. Jeeter (Todd Boyce) is paying his annual visit to Ben (Demetri Goritsas) after attending the funeral of Ben’s father which Ben did not attend.

Jeeter is hoping that Ben will approve of his new girlfriend Salyer (Zoe Tapper) whom he met on route to the funeral. Sal and her mother Lorraine (Wendy Nottingham) soon arrive on the scene.

All four characters are haunted by the war. Lorraine still recalls bitterly her nineteen-year-old husband being drafted into the army and then going missing in action presumed dead.

Sal’s obsession with the father she never knew led her to the war Memorial in Washington which is etched with the names of dead or missing servicemen. After seeing it, she has names similarly tattooed across her body.

There is something manic and obsessive about Jeeter’s behaviour. Sal describes him as getting stuck in things like a needle. He talks and writes about the war and is about to publish a book on the subject.

Even his social behaviour seems distorted. He goes to Rolling Stones concerts with a large painted sign that simply says "Just Stop". Maybe he really wanted to stop the Stones performing, but you suspect that the message might be a comment on his war trauma.

Ben has generally withdrawn from the world, living alone in a trailer on land polluted by a company that has bought everybody else’s property so they can move away. He has fallen out with his father over the war and neither has spoken to the other for years.

As it grows dark and Ben is left alone, a young nineteen-year-old soldier (Cavan Clarke) in dress uniform arrives. Ben puts on glasses and becomes Robert McNamara who ran the government’s war machine for seven years. Standing by his ironing board as if it is a podium for the notes the soldier hands to him, he speaks in comforting tones about a war he secretly knew was wrong and could never win.

This is a very moving play. The dialogue is fast, sharp, and often funny. John Haider’s sensitive direction creates warm, believable characters performed by an impressive cast. In particular, the relationship between Jeeter and Ben is given a constantly engaging tension.

The characters are in a sense all the children of McNamara, as much the casualties of his lies and cruel decisions as the dead that piled up in Vietnam.

The play was first produced in 2004 as America was again taking casualties in foreign wars. John Haider suggests that McNamara’s speeches nearly fifty years ago were "not dissimilar in style to the rhetoric employed in debates surrounding the bombing of civilian centres in Syria in the House of Commons in December 2015."

When he visited Vietnam, John Hader asked whether "they thought the West learnt anything" from its war with Vietnam. "I think they’re trying not to," was the reply.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna

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