Comedy drama about war veterans
EMMA LEE The award-winning comedy drama Heroes about three young-at-heart first world war veterans, is at Norwich Theatre Royal in the run-up to Remembrance Sunday. Emma Lee met two of the leading players - Christopher Timothy and Art Malik.
One critic has said that the play Heroes reminded them of the sitcom Last of the Summer Wine. And you can see their point. Translated by the Oscar-winning writer Tom Stoppard and set in 1959, first world war veterans Philippe, Gustave and Henri spend their days putting the world to rights in the way that grumpy old men do and plotting ways to escape their military hospital home. Their destination is Indochina - or if their blackouts, agoraphobia and gammy leg respectively won't let them get that far, to the poplar trees in the distance.
Possibly accompanied by a dog statue, which may or may not move of its own accord.
According to the Sunday Telegraph, all that's missing is the runaway tin bath careering down a hill a la Compo, Clegg and Foggy.
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The play won rave reviews and the Olivier Award for best comedy when it opened in the West End.
And a new touring production, which stars Art Malik, Christopher Timothy and Michael Jayston as the troublemaking trio, will be at the Theatre Royal, Norwich, this week.
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The play is an absolute treat - it's got an intelligent, thought-provoking script and beautifully acted.
The cast of Malik, Timothy and Jayston works incredibly well and, as accomplished stage actors, they obviously feel comfortable in those surroundings.
Heroes is packed with hilarious lines and pathos in equal measure - it has the cosiness of a Sunday night sitcom, then delivers emotional punches when you least expect them.
While the premise is that Philippe (Malik), Gustave (Timothy) and Henri (Jayston) are planning to make a bid for freedom, this is really a character study.
Young and mischievous at heart, still with an eye for the ladies, these are three men whose lives have been overshadowed by the horrors of war.
Gustave has had a wife who, for a reason that is never revealed, he refuses to talk about.
Philippe keeps passing out because of a shrapnel wound and has a conspiracy theory that if two veterans at the hospital have the same birthday one of them will be 'disposed of' - and when a new resident arrives who shares his birthday it sends him into a panic.
And while this is used to comic effect, it's also an incredibly powerful way of illustrating that these men are, effectively, just whiling away their last days in each other's company.
With only three characters - all of whom are male - and translated from French (Stoppard collaborated with the original playwright Gerald Sibleyras on this adaptation), it's drawn comparisons with Yasmina Reza's smash hit Art, although Malik, who also starred in Art, disagrees.
“From my point of view they seemed to be completely different plays,” he says.
Malik and Timothy are unanimous on what drew them to the roles.
“It's got Tom Stoppard's name on the front page. You start reading it, you're laughing and before you know it you're at the end. That's good enough,” says Malik.
“Exactly the same answer, word for word,” agrees Timothy. “It is a great play. It's directed by someone who knows what she's doing.”
I meet the two actors, who are both household names thanks to high-profile TV, and, in the case of Malik, film roles, following a matinee at Richmond Theatre.
Maybe it's because I grew up watching All Creatures Great And Small, but I was half expecting Timothy to be wearing a tweed suit like his vet character James Herriot - so seeing him in modern casual gear almost took me by surprise.
That's what a diet of TV during your formative years does for you.
His most recent long-running TV part has been in the afternoon soap Doctors, where he directed some of the episodes.
Jayston, who isn't at the interview, is known for the acclaimed drama Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and the Oscar-winning film Nicholas and Alexandra.
Malik's film credits include True Lies, A Passage to India and The Living Daylights. He played Zubin Khan in the medical drama Holby City, and he hints that he may make a return to the country's unluckiest hospital at some point.
“I can't tell you how much I'm enjoying doing this play. It's joyous,” Timothy says. “I'm acting with people I admire. For a large part of my career that's what I've been able to do. And the rest of the time I've done crap,” he laughs, leaving me to guess which projects he would rather forget about.
“It's about three guys who care about each other. The war hangs over their lives. It's about hope and futility - because they ain't ever going to leave. I think this play is full of moments that make the audience go “oh yes”. I think it's a very accurate play,” he adds.
“I think the thing that affects me most is that these were young men, some were boys, who would have had that experience - a day in the trenches, a year, and all that we got told about the first world war is that most of the ones that came back didn't want to talk about it,” says Malik.
“We see what happened to these young men. This is their life. At the beginning of the play, nothing happens for a good 10 or 15 seconds until you have the first line. It's courageous of the directors to say 'hold'. But it allows us to believe in the friendship.
“I think that's what's great about theatre,” he adds. “You take a slice of that person's life, you drop in and then you're out. Sometimes there's a very strong narrative, but it's just as exciting to do a piece [like Heroes] that's about characters listening and interacting. And it's nice to hear what another older generation has to say.”
Timothy and Malik are both great admirers of Stoppard and Sibleyras' script.
Known in French as Le Vent Des Peupliers - the Wind in the Poplars, its name was changed to Heroes for the English version to avoid confusion with the Wind in the Willows.
It would, apparently, have been called Veterans if a play of that name didn't already exist.
Le Vent Des Peupliers was originally commissioned by Theatre Montparnasse and received three Moliere Award nominations in 2003. Sibleyras' other plays include Le Beret de la Torture, which he co-wrote with Jean Dell along with Un Petit Jeu Sans Consequence, which received nine Moliere nominations. His most recent play, Une Heure et Demie de Retard, premiered at the Theatre des Mathurins. It has, again, been translated into English, as An Hour and a Half Late, and is also currently on tour starring comedian Mel Smith and Belinda Lang.
Stoppard was born in Czechoslovakia and lived in Singapore and India before moving to England. He began his career as a journalist and had his first major success with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead which was staged at the Edinburgh Festival in 1966. He co-wrote the screenplay for the multiple Oscar-winning Shakespeare in Love. He was made a CBE in 1978, given a knighthood in 1997 and the Order of Merit in 2000.
“The man's a maestro with words,” says Malik.
“And his first language isn't English,” says Timothy. “He claims that it's more Sibleyras that him, but there are moments in the play that are blatantly Tom Stoppard. He's humble and gives a lot of credit to the French writer. Whenever Tom Stoppard gets sent a play to translate he usually sends it straight back. This time he didn't,” he says. t
t Heroes is at the Theatre Royal, Norwich, from Monday November 6 until Saturday November 11. Box office 01603 630000; www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk