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A CurtainUp London London Review

Philippe: When it comes to women we are not exactly spoilt for choice.
Henri: The fact that most of them are nuns is a bit of a drawback,
Heroes is a play set in August 1959 in a home somewhere in France for retired military men. The original 2002 French title translates as Wind in the Poplars and the change to Heroes may well have been because of confusion generated by Kenneth Graham's book and play The Wind in the Willows. As the three characters are all veterans of the French army in the First World War, the title Heroes was chosen.

Tom Stoppard tells us that he would have called the play Veterans had not Charles Wood got to that play title first in 1972. With Stoppard taking on the adaptation and three of our finest male actors, John Hurt, Ken Stott and Richard Griffiths in situ, the expectation is no less than heroic. In fact I think the original title is more suited to the play's gentle observation of old age, memory and future hope.

The play takes place outside on a terrace in the garden of a convent hospital. The French word hôpital means not just a place where the sick are treated, but one of refuge and residence, like the Chelsea Hospital for army pensioners and invalided soldiers. Heroes strikes theatrical memory chords, the first being the thought that it is a less inexplicable reworking of Waiting for Godot and, here in the Wyndham's Theatre, we think about that other very successful three hander that ran here, Yasmin Reza's Art. Like Godot the men go nowhere and do nothing except talk, but in less than an hour and a half, a perfect picture emerges of their essential character and those things they (and we) long for and muse upon. Tom Stoppard's contribution is of course his magnificent wit and choice of scintillating language.

John Hurt's Gustav is wiry and upright, with a military bearing like the jaunty statue of Jan Smuts outside the Houses of Parliament. Gustav, usually in a brown tweed suit, is the strategist of the trio. He has only been in the home for a matter of months and he leaves behind him a very decorated military career. Gustav's first plans for the men to do (a visit to Indochina) are wildly romantic and ambitious, especially when it emerges that Gustav is almost agoraphobic in his reluctance to venture outside the home. He has forgotten the rudiments of contact with the outside world -- simple things like how to greet people in the street -- and is at times irascible and unreasonable, sometimes reaching high curmudgeon, but always brave and doughty.

Richard Griffiths, his enormous frame dwarfing the other two actors so they seem to be drawn to a smaller scale, is the sanguine and likeable Henri who has led a sheltered life. We suspect that he has never had a girlfriend. But in terms of the play's dynamics, Henri is the gravy for the other two actors' meat. Henri's idea for an expedition is the altogether smaller scale and prosaic picnic in the near vicinity. It is he who refuses to join in the wildly unrealistic expedition and finds himself almost ostracised by Gustav for his act of (overstated) "treachery.". Henri is the down to earth realist and for me the least interesting of the three.

Philippe is the most quizzical and most imaginative member of the threesome. A piece of shrapnel lodged in his skull has left him with blackouts from which he comes round reeling and shouting, "Get them from the rear, Captain!" Ken Stott is amazing as he collapses again and again and regains consciousness staring and asking if the others think these turns are happening more frequently. He tells us of his skill at playing the piano which makes Gustav quip, "Passing out every few minutes . . . . bit of a drawback for a concert pianist!" When one of the nuns, Sister Madelaine, organises the ritualised birthday parties it is Philippe's conspiracy theory that she eliminates those with a duplicate birthday, expediting their death. The arrival of someone with the same birthday as his, coupled with the rumour that they might have to share their terrace, prompts the decision to escape.

The expediton the men plan is to a hill in view where the three can see the wind rustling the leaves on the poplar trees. It involves two river crossings and an uphill climb. The men practise being roped together for this with a garden hose in a wonderfully cackhanded and disputational scene. (editor's note: cackhanded is a Britishism for awkward or clumsy).

The proposed fourth member of the party is a life size statue of a dog (weighing 200lbs) which takes on a character all of its own with the dog even "making his own entry" in the journey planning log book. The dog scenes are delightfully zany. I also liked the planning and military expertise expended on preparing for the journey which lets us see Gustav in command, proving that he can still think like a soldier.

I found the set heavy handed and obtrusive. The bright blue skyline punctuated by tall straight trees negates the information about the poplars being on the horizon. The heavy, rough stone, sloping boundary wall that's overgrown with plants and the immense amount of detail fussy and distracting -- and a background that made it hard to see the characters.

There is much that is inventive about Heroes but its impact is a gentle and slowly persuasive one rather than it being a production with an immediate Wow! factor. The characterisation is deftly drawn and the acting is superlative. I'm pleased that the playwright does not fall into an obvious and cliché ridden conclusion. I find I like Heroes even more as I look back on it and, like those old soldiers, cherish the memory.

Written by Gérald Sibleyras
Translated by Tom Stoppard
Directed by Thea Sharrock

Starring: John Hurt, Richard Griffiths, Ken Stott
Design: Robert Jones
Lighting: Howard Harrison
Sound: Simon Baker
Running time: One hour thirty minutes without an interval
Box Office: 0870 145 1163
Booking until 10th December 2005
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 21st October 2005 performance at the Wyndhams Theatre, Charing Cross Road WC2 (Tube: Leicester Square)
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