Heroes review at Grange Playhouse

 

 

Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

Heroes

Grange Players

Grange Playhouse

*****

When it comes to plays Heroes is a particular favourite of mine, a gentle comedy ambling along in the summer sunshine of rural France.

It is set in August, 1959 in a military hospital for First World War veterans where three old soldiers have commandeered a small terrace as their personal domain - think of a Last of the Summer Wine for people with a GCSE.

There is Henri, played with an air of resignation and a delightful repertoire of facial expressions, by Paul Viles. Henri, with his gammy leg, has been a resident for 25 years. He is a pragmatist, with routines built up over a quarter of a century behind him, routines he would prefer not to disturb too much – although he is delighted to find on his morning constitutional that there is a girls’ school in the nearby village he never knew about – which opens up a new area of discussion for the trio.

Next in order of residence is Philippe, at the home for ten years and played with a nervousness verging on panic by Robert Onions. Philippe carries a permanent air of paranoia, hates decisions and seems incapable of taking sides, sitting on the fence so much his backside must resemble a hot cross bun.

He has a sinister theory about birthdays – noting there are never two on the same day in the home – which haunts his life, or rather death in his case. To add to his problems German shrapnel lodged in his head means he passes out at regular intervals coming round shouting “we’ll take them from the rear Captain!” which it transpires relates to an engagement far from the front . . . in more ways than one.

His black outs can have unfortunate results, such as when standing by the open grave at the funeral of a resident . . .

Finally, if we don’t count the stone statue of a dog that Philippe is convinced moves, we have Gustave, played with a confident air by Andrew Tomlinson in what is a remarkable performance in the circumstances.

heroes

Andrew Tomlinson as Gustave, Paul Viles as Henri, Robert Onions as Philippe and, in the background, the stone dog. Pictures: Alastair Barnsley

The original actor had to drop out at the last minute and Tomlinson stepped in for what was his Grange debut, learning the part from scratch in a few days and then playing it as if born to the role.

Gustav, who hints he is from the aristocracy, has the self-assured military air of one used to command, treating the nuns who care for him with disdain, and despite only having been there six months, sees himself as the natural leader of our trio – or quartet if you count the stone dog.

This despite the fact he is afraid to even venture into the grounds alone, with a life that consists of bed, terrace, dinner, bed.

And, apart from Henri’s daily walks, that is life for the three of them, centred on the terrace where they discuss Philippe’s sister and her moron of a husband, which is the reason he is in the home in the first place, discussions about the nuns, the pretty cleaner with a lisp and, of course, Henri’s love life with the teacher at the school.

Not that Henri has a love life or any designs on one but that is not going to stop Philippe and Gustav from advising and speculating on the art of romance and how his chance meetings can be developed with Philippe proffering the advice to tell the teacher a joke as making a woman laugh was as important as making them climax. Cue discussion on laughter’s place in lust.

And then there were the poplars, a stand of them on the hill beyond the cemetery which could be just seen from the terrace.

Gustave, who could hardly venture off the terrace without a panic attack, develops a sort of Colditz mentality, cajoling the others into devising an escape from the home initially to head for Indo-China, where Henri could follow girls on the beach rather than schoolgirls in the village, a plan which was modified, after some discussion, to escaping to the poplars as a sort of interim measure.

It is a journey we and, in their hearts, they know will never happen but for a while, even set in his ways Henri gets caught up in the planning and preparation, the roping up with a fire hose with Gustave’s constant complaint he should be at the front, the folding of stolen blankets, all like a geriatric episode of Just William.

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Gustave and Pilippe dream of the poplars with Henri looking on

 

It cannot last though and eventually reality breaks out again and normality, institutionalised as it might be, returns and we leave our trio, and the dog, on their terrace as a flight of migrating geese herald the dying embers of summer.

There are laughs a plenty from asides and comments as the trio bicker, fantasise, discuss and debate, and there is a little sadness at three old duffers living out their own end of summer days.

The play, from 2005 was translated and adapted by Tom Stoppard from the 2003 French hit comedy  Le Vent Des Peupliers by Gérald Sibleyras. The French title translates as The Wind in the Poplars which, in truth, is more appropriate than the current title, but the powers that be felt that the literal translation could be confused with The Wind in the Willows in the minds of the theatre going public with some perhaps even believing it was a sequel!

No matter, Sibleyras and Stoppard have given us three clearly defined characters, fleshed out into real people, and a comedy where, in truth, very little happens, but the little that does is beautifully and skilfully written and, also in this case, beautifully delivered.

The set, designed by director Dexter Whitehead and assistant director Rosemary Manjunath, is simple and most effective, a terrace with two side gates and French windows at the rear into the home, roses on trellises on the walls and three, clearly assigned, seats – along with that stone dog.

Costumes are collar, ties, jackets and waistcoats at all times – after all it is 1959 and this is still a military establishment and these are still military men, although a jacket may be removed on a particularly warm day.

All in all it is a delightful production, directed with a light touch, which is full of gentle humour, good writing and good acting which guarantees you will leave with a smile on your face. If you don’t . . . check someone else in the audience didn’t have the same birthday. Why? You will have to go along to find out. To 2-05-17

Roger Clarke

19-05-17

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