It’s August 1959 and three French World War I veterans have become increasingly disillusioned by life in their convent military nursing home, despite the relatively peaceful and idyllic setting of their own terrace, overlooking not just the local cemetery, but also a view of beautiful poplar trees, a view which leads to them deciding to make a break for freedom. While reminiscing about their lives and past battles, grumbling about the staff, dreaming of chasing younger women and worrying about the potential consequences of multiple birthdays on the same day, they hatch a plot to escape across the fields. However, their plans are mildly hampered, to say the least, by the facts that one is a severe agoraphobic, one has a severe limp and the other becomes unconscious periodically due to the piece of shrapnel that is lodged in his brain, all presumably consequences of their wartime experiences.
Originally a French play, Le Vent Des Peupliers by Parisienne playwright Gerald Sibleyras, it was translated into English by Tom Stoppard and entitled Heroes to avoid the literal translation (The Wind Of The Poplars) becoming confused with The Wind In The Willows as a title and because Stoppard claimed that his preferred title of Veterans was already taken. It won the prestigious Laurence Olivier award for Best New Comedy; it’s easy to see why, as this is a compelling observational comedy, often politically incorrect, somewhat bawdy but ultimately poignant, reminiscent of the original trio of mischievous and grumpy old men in a Gallic version of Last Of The Summer Wine.
The three actors are all on stage for virtually the entire play and maintain great energy, focus and strong personalities throughout, capturing the different physical and emotional manifestations of the battle scars that they each carry with clarity, comic value but also some sensitivity. Individually they each give strong performances: Noel Davenport as affable, possibly naïve, bumbling Henri, Lindsay Jones as suave, debonair, haughty Gustave and David Vinter as curmudgeonly, suspicious and shameless Phillipe. However, they also collectively gel together in a convincing cohesive unit as war veterans who have lived together in the home for years, complete with their shared empathies and verbal bickering.
Director Tony Hessey has ensured that this production is a very good combination of pace and pause, a very difficult balance to achieve. If the three actors have forgotten or stumbled over any of their lines – and there are a LOT of lines in this play! – then it is kept in character and becomes an integral part of their characterisations, although perhaps at times the physical ramifications of neurological conditions are slightly overemphasised and would benefit from a subtler approach.
The scenery and set dressing, enhanced by atmospheric lighting and good rural sound effects, bring a feel of the French Riviera to the intimate Little Theatre and Rocky the stone dog is a vital component of the production, both to the narrative and aesthetically. The costumes capture the mature late 1950s style for gentlemen, despite them wearing the same clothes over the time span of the play.
This has been my first visit to Bournemouth Little Theatre; it is unlikely to be my last. The last words of their programme are “Be alive to live theatre and keep theatre alive” and with quality productions like Heroes (which, although not perfect, fully deserves a larger audience than the one I was a part of this evening), BLT will no doubt achieve this for many more years to come.