Conveying the magnitude of war on stage is a huge task but Progress Theatre has created a fantastically atmospheric production in their version of Willis Hall’s The Long and The Short and The Tall.
Set in British Malaya in the middle of World War II, the play centres around a group of British soldiers who come across a small, abandoned cabin in the jungle. While the soldiers rest and wait for the best time to head back to base camp, an Japanese soldier arrives, and the men find themselves confronted with fresh horrors.
Set designers Tony Travis and Matt Tully (the latter also doubles as director), have created a brilliant piece of staging with the entire space take up by the inside of the wooden-panelled hut – complete with cobwebs, cargo boxes and strong lighting which makes it feel dense and hot, as it should.
All we can see of the outside is through two windows, framed by foliage, but through masterful story-telling we come to believe in a whole jungle beyond the door, with the Japanese army inching ever closer. The tension and pace of the piece is superb – the crackling radio is used to particularly great effect – and director Tully gradually builds the fear of what lies beyond the hut, but also what the men find themselves confronted with inside.
Hall creates a powerful image of the war, with this small company of men reflecting the helplessness, fear, chaos and confusion. We are reminded that these fighting machines with their knives and guns have families at home, but so too does the Japanese prisoner who pulls photographs of a wife and children from his wallet.
The exploration of humanity, shown in the soldiers’ increasingly panicked behaviour towards their prisoner is heartbreaking, and Kevin Copping gives a remarkable transformation as Private ‘Bammo’ Bamforth. An arrogant, smart-talking, loud-mouth in the first half, Bammo becomes an unlikely point of hope in the second.
Each soldier has his own motivations, his own fears and morals, and the cast capture the individuality of each man in the company well. Peter Cook as Sergeant Mitchem is a strong and convincing leader, but really as lost as any of his men, while the rage in Corporal Edward Johnstone (Craig Daniels), is alarming, surely not just a product of war?
Macleish (Dylan Yates) and Taff (Brett Davis), are perhaps a little stereotypical in their Scottish/Welsh traits, but at the same time Hall makes a point on the universality of war, and while Macleish brings a brooding sense of duty, Evans’ has such friendly, optimistic expressions, you both warm to and pity him.
Smith (Daniel Brown) and Whitaker (Josh Boden) make up the rest of the company, both trying to get by but inevitably trapped in the midst of this unthinkable war.
Their prisoner, played by the brilliant Adrian Tang whose fearful expressions make us wince in solidarity, holds a mirror up to their own situation – each as helpless as another.
While the grim reality of war is vivid, there are plenty of light moments in the banter the men share. And it is exactly that humour and playfulness which warms us to the men, and makes the potential danger beyond the hut so much more horrific.
The Long and The Short and The Tall is at Progress Theatre until Saturday, 17 September. To book visit www.progresstheatre.co.uk.
I was invited to review the show so my tickets were complimentary but all views are my own.