Writer: William Ivory
Director: Matt Aston
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
The experience of combat is a very personal thing, but one that lasts a lifetime. There are men who never speak of it, they did what they had to do and went back to their lives, locking it all away, while others spend the rest of their lives retelling their story in an endless quest for meaning and bearing the guilt of survival. How men coped has long been a core question for historians and dramatists but few plays explore what it means to be a war veterans more than 70 years later, when the society and the friends they fought for no longer exist.
In William Ivory’s beautiful play, Jimmy is a former RAF gunner now living in a controlled flat, cared for by wardens who help him to wash, dress and take his various medicines. One day he meets David who has given up a corporate job for a more fulfilling career as a carer. After a faltering start, the two forge an unlikely bond arguing about religion and a shared love of cake, which leads to poignant revelations about their lives as two lonely men find solace and support in unlikely places.
Ivory’s text is brilliantly constructed,easing us slowly into the story with everyday chat and uses Jimmy’s irascibility to great comic effect in the early scenes. Yet not a word is wasted and what on the surface appears to be general chatter is cleverly revealing the nature of these two characters and the trust that begins to build between them. It’s a fascinating idea to balance Jimmy’s memories of war with David’s struggle for survival, and Ivory shrewdly allows both to dominate at various points while making their conversation feel natural and utterly compelling.
Ivory’s father served in Bomber Command and this knowledge has been skilfully integrated into the play to underline the central conflict within Jimmy, that of trying to reconcile an experience that was at once both the best and worst time of his life, with the physical frailty and emptiness he feels as an old man. The conversational scenes with David are interspersed with Jimmy’s memories of combat coming back to him as remembrances of sound as well as a couple of flashbacks with a comrade. James Bolam gives an incredibly moving performance as a man haunted by his past and it is almost heart-breaking to see the struggle to accept his physical weakness and reliance on others. He strikingly conveys how Jimmy’s banter is essentially a mask that covers the incongruous idea that war was the best time of his life.
Steve John Shepherd is every bit as compelling as David, whose early nervous exuberance settles into a confessional attachment to Jimmy. Of the two, his character seems to build emotionally as the play progresses and Shepherd instils David with a repressed tension and deep sadness which makes his unravelling in the climactic scenes explosive to watch. Together you cannot take your eyes off either actor, their dialogue is full of tension, completely captivating and you want to listen to them talk all night.
Laura McEwen’s shabby set adds to the tinge of sadness that surrounds Jimmy’s life, while the circular window in the door to his room a nicely placed hint of the titular moon that remains in his memory. This deserved West End transfer of Bomber’s Moon is undoubtedly one of the finest productions in London and not to be missed. One mark of great theatre is at various times suddenly realising you’ve been holding your breath, and having no idea how long you’ve been holding it for – in this incredible production you may not breathe at all. And while the glimmer of a happy ending may not quite be in keeping with the tone of the rest, this is a tender story about loneliness and unlikely friendship in the long aftermath of tragic events.
Runs Until 23 May| Photo Robert Day