Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Wednesday 5th November, 2014
Officers suffering from shell-shock were sent to Craiglockhart Army Hospital in Scotland in order that they might be made well enough to be sent back to the trenches to be killed. This is the absurdity that underscores Nicholas Wright’s stage adaptation of Pat Barker’s novel. It’s like taking a pit-stop during a demolition derby.
With the First World War at the forefront of our minds in this centenary year (rightly so) there is a danger that we shall reach saturation point and desensitised to those terrible events. Things, I find, are beginning to lose impact. Certainly Catch 22 makes many of the same points as this play (albeit in a WW2 setting) and makes them sharper and more absurd. Here, rather than a Yossarian, we have the poet Siegfried Sassoon quite understandably speaking out against the barbarity and senseless horrors. For his pains, he is squirrelled away at Craiglockhart because his sane opinions are regarded as lunatic. If he recants, he will be declared fit and sent back to the front and almost certain death – only a madman would want that…
Tim Delap hits all the right notes as the handsome and smug Sassoon, contrasting with Stephen Boxer’s quiet authority as army shrink Dr Rivers, who recognises the absurdity of his position of making men fit to be shot, but does it anyway. With sturdy support from Garmon Rhys as Wilfred Owen and Christopher Brandon as Robert Graves, the story blends figures from real life with fictitious characters, but it’s not drama-documentary; perhaps it might be more hard-hitting if it was.
Jack Monaghan is excellent as Billy Prior who snaps out of his mutism to relive his nightmarish experiences. It’s all very well done: Alex Eales’s set is suitably institutional and dour and both the lighting design (by Lee Curran) and the sound (George Dennis) enhance the men’s various ‘episodes’ and recollections. There is a grimly distasteful scene involving electrodes – torture as treatment – that is still making me squirm.
Director Simon Godwin lets a creeping sense of doom have the upper hand but without the emotional or visceral punch of something like Birdsong or Journey’s End. Regeneration is well-made cannon fodder for the unstoppable and ubiquitous WWI nostalgia machine.