The Long and The Short and The Tall

Norwich Theatre Royal

Norwich Theatre Royal

The extraordinary demands that are placed on ordinary people in war; the terrible consequences of human frailties thus exposed.

With such themes, it is no wonder that a revival of Willis Hall's The Long and the Short and the Tall seems apposite.

First performed at the Royal Court in 1959, this Sheffield Theatre-production forms part of new artistic director Samuel West's first season, and is an admirably taut, compelling piece of drama.

In the oppressive, enveloping jungle of Malaya, Blue patrol is stranded in an abandoned hut as the enemy begins an assault that will culminate in the fall of Singapore.

At first, confident of their proximity to base, a Japanese transmission heard over the radio rattles even the more experienced soldiers.

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Then, as the radio battery fades, along with all realistic hopes of survival, the capture of a lone enemy combatant throws up uncomfortable ethical questions.

Willis Hall himself described his play as being pro-humanity rather than anti-war, and director Josie Rourke has clearly borne this in mind.

The first act chiefly centres on the boredom and routine of army life, the young conscripts trading regional insults one minute, before hunkering down to listen to a women's magazine serial the next.

Character traits are skilfully revealed as the men reminisce about home in colourfully-smutty language that consistently highlights this play's origins in the 1950s tendency towards naturalistic theatre.

While heavier issues of conscience and responsibility are successfully tackled after the interval, what really convinces overall is the depiction of inexperienced young men struggling to come to terms with the reality of war.

If David Dawson's Pte Whitaker is perhaps a shade too camp, all other performances hit the mark, with Tom Brooke the strutting soul of cockney savvy as the irrepressible Pte Bamforth.

Jason Merrells also thoroughly inhabits the circumspect, world-weary Sgt Mitchem.

But the star of the show might just be designer Lucy Osborne's set. Slanting, vaporous light combines with the chirruping of crickets to evoke a suitably claustrophobic atmosphere for this thrilling, thoughtful production.