For King And Country, Southwark Playhouse – Review

Pack up your troubles in your old kit-bag,
And smile, smile, smile,
While you’ve a lucifer to light your fag,
Smile, boys, that’s the style.
What’s the use of worrying?
It never was worth while, so
Pack up your troubles in your old kit-bag,
And smile, smile, smile.
Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kit-Bag (1915)

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L-R: Lloyd Everitt, Peter Ellis, Cameron Robertson, Fergal Coghlan and Adam Lawrence / All photos © Richard Stand

Anyone who knows anything about the condition and experiences of soldiers during the First World War knows it was a time for madness. The events that transpired during this war would eventually lead to the drafting of the Geneva Convention, covering the ‘humane’ treatment of soldiers. However, that universal ‘progress’ wouldn’t happen for decades. In the meantime, chemical weapons such as mustard gas were de rigeur and while ‘shellshock’ was just beginning to be reported, it was far from being widely understood and believed…

Written by John Wilson and directed by Paul Tomlinson, For King And Country is a fictionalised account of what happened to many ‘deserters’ at that time. A ‘veteran’ of four years on the the frontline, Private Hamp (Adam Lawrence) has reached a ‘saturation point’, where he can’t suppress, decompartmentalise or ignore the atrocities he’s experienced first-hand, or his constant state of fear. Functioning on ‘autopilot’, Hamp follows his subsconscious compulsion to leave the camp, oblivious to the future consequences. Eventually tracked down by his regiment, Hamp faces disciplinary proceedings, leading to his representation in court by Lieutenant Hargreaves (Lloyd Everitt).

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Eugene Simon and Adam Lawrence

While Lawrence’s Private Hamp is inarticulate and doesn’t have a high degree of self-awareness, Everitt’s Hargreaves compensates for his client’s communicative shortcomings. Everitt subtly shows his character’s ambivalence towards representing Hamp – empathetic towards the state of Hamp’s marriage and what he’s endured on the frontline, but at the same time, frustrated by almost everything Hamp says and does as it undermines his standing as a soldier…

Asides from the Hargreaves-Hamp dynamic, what really drives the play is how the rest of the regiment reacts to Hamp’s arrest and their opinions on his ‘guilt’. Lieutenant Webb (Henry Proffit) doesn’t particularly like Hamp, but in the likely event that the Private is found guilty, Webb has a gut feeling it will be him who is required to “do his duty”. Then there’s Medical Officer O’Sullivan (Andrew Cullum) who was nonchalant when Hamp confided in him, but a veritable Vesuvius when he has to give an account for himself during the court-martial proceedings. Outside of military law, the Padre (Eugene Simon) does his best to provide comfort and defend Hamp. However, barring his final impassioned speech in court, his words – while well-meaning – lack ‘authority’, unable to prepare Hamp for what is to come or the verbal gravity to convince the top brass that ‘compassion’ and ‘mental health’ are not incongruous to the British Army.

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L-R: Lloyd Everitt, Henry Proffit and Eugene Simon

Much like the tone in Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, For King And Country deftly shows that when it comes to the rites of war, the inhumane treatment of soldiers begins at home. The play makes us realise how lucky we are that there has been some progress, though for the men back then who were unjustly sentenced, it is a case of too little, too late…

© Michael Davis 2018

Golden stars rating template isolated on white background.

For King And Country runs at Southwark Playhouse until 21st July.

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