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Time for Heroes
Barons Court Theatre
21st February 2015


Lesley Molony, Neil Hobbs, Jenny Coyle and Duncan Mason as Joan, Jim, Sophie and Billy

Photography provided by Highwire Theatre

Given the significance of 2014, there was a sudden flurry of creative writing based around World War I with some fantastic productions such as The Glasshouse and Not About Heroes. But there are still more stories to be told about war, and Kevin Lee's offering, Time for Heroes, initially promises a reflection on loss and the raw grief felt by a family after losing a loved one to the battlefield. What follows, though, is less about emotions and more about politics.

Set in a local community centre in Preston, the Fowlers are forced to confront hard questions about the war that killed their Jack when his missing best friend finally turns up to pay his respects. Billy (Duncan Mason) had enlisted for the army alongside him, but had suddenly disappeared before their redeployment after having doubts about what he was really fighting for.

Attempting to tackle everything from PTSD and desertion to patriotism, the unquestioning obedience expected of soldiers and the motives behind the recently "concluded" war in Afghanistan, Time for Heroes tries to take on so much that rarely does the piece carry any emotional resonance. When Sophie (Jenny Coyle) reveals to Billy that a mutual army friend was sectioned on returning to civilian life, this does shock us. Yet as the plot moves towards its second half, the political messages begin to overshadow the other aspects, with far too much time (in a play of only 70 minutes) dedicated to a series of repetitive arguments between Billy, Jack and Sophie's mother Joan (Lesley Molony) and their uncle Jim (Neil Hobbs). You can't help but think that the playwright's arguments against the war would be more powerful if integrated more organically into the plot.

Jenny Coyle as Sophie

Photography provided by Highwire Theatre

Sadly, this decision also hinders characterisation - as the play progresses, Billy becomes more and more a mouthpiece for Lee's own views, and Jim at times seems to exist primarily to present an opposing voice for Billy to correct, allowing neither to become fully-rounded. Jim suffers especially, being reduced to a stereotype and made to sound stupid (at one point telling former soldier Billy that though he's never been to war, he knows what it's like) in order to push the audience to side with Billy.

Frustratingly, this means the exploration of the protagonists' emotions promised in the opening section never fully materialises. Billy's sorrow over the loss of an old friend evaporates when he starts arguing with Jim - whose grief is never shown, only his anger, leaving the part lacking depth. This is a real shame, as the scenes focusing on how the individuals actually feel are by far the best, with director Menelaos Karantzas having more to work with.

The opening, in which Joan cleans up sorrowfully as Jim and Sophie talk casually behind her, tells us of the deep hurt she feels two years after her son's death, which she cannot hide in the way the others can. It is genuinely moving and her unspoken pain is exposed later in a cathartic monologue to Billy. There are some potentially touching moments of honesty in Sophie's heart-to-heart with Billy near the play's end, but this unfortunately falls down in performance: Coyle's otherwise strong portrayal falters here in a failure to capture Sophie's vulnerability.

Nick Gott's design is deliberately uncomplicated, with the intimate space repurposed into a hall with laminate flooring and a plaque on the back wall, commemorating the fallen soldier at the heart of the piece. We never meet Jack, there are are no flashbacks - but the simple sign ensures the importance of this character never is forgotten.

An interesting piece of theatre with some strong performances, Time for Heroes suffers from an identity crisis which, in trying to be both, leaves the audience with neither a touching reflection on grief nor a powerful political drama. It's somewhere in the middle, and whilst it's very watchable, some tweaking to the script would make it that bit more enthralling.

Time for Heroes ran from 17th to 28th February 2015 at Barons Court Theatre.

Nearest tube station: West Kensington (District)

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