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Heroes - review

Sep 7, 2015 Theatre

Three silver-haired men sit on a terrace, pontificating about life. This, essentially, is Heroes. Theatre veterans George Henare, Ray Henwood and Ken Blackburn gently ease us into the lives of ageing French World War One vets. They’ve played these roles before, for Circa Theatre in 2007, and they are a snug fit.

The immediate view from their terrace is of a cemetery, but beyond is a grove of poplar trees. All highly symbolic. There are a few false starts in the plot. A plan to extend the terrace to all-comers has them planning trench warfare (barbed wire, sandbags, machine guns!), but they soon acquiesce. There’s the writing of poems, a funeral, discussion of the importance of making a woman laugh. Eventually, they decide to plan one last expedition: to escape the old soldier’s home and go see those poplars.

It’s a languid affair, a very slow farce. The men plan the poplar campaign in irrational detail. In translating Gérald Sibleyras 2003 play, Tom Stoppard says the appeal was that “it’s not the kind of play that I write”. But you could also see how he might be attracted to the dry absurdism of the piece. Blackburn’s Philippe has the same shtick as the narcoleptic Argentinian from Moulin Rouge, though his spells are caused by an ancient shrapnel wound to the head. He becomes convinced that the statue of a dog keeps moving, the comic gift which keeps on barking.

The twinkle in Henare’s eye is perfect for Henri, who is accused of being an “enthusiast” by the others. He’s been in the home the longest – 25 years. Henwood’s Gustave is the newbie – six months new – and his mercurial personality a source of comic friction. Blackburn, 10 years, is wonderful as the confused middleman.

For the WWI centennial remembrance last year ATC gave us the bombastic “Birth of a Nation” myth via Maurice Shadbolt’s Once on Chunuk Bair. Heroes contemplates how the influence of the Great War continued into old age. Theirs is a generation now passed and Sibleyras’ play has a warm breeze of nostalgia. It is strongly affectionate, though not everything these three say you’d repeat in polite company. They are heroes, they are rascals, they are dinosaurs, they are mortal, they are men.

Though the approaching end is as ever present as the dead autumn leaves scattered around John Parker’s tranquil terrace, this is not a gloomy play, nor is it very demanding production. This is comfort-theatre, right down to the clichéd Francophile soundtrack. La Mer’s there, though not Non, Je ne regrette rien. There are certainly regrets, though they are not dwelled on. The message is about making the most of here and now, the importance of friendship, and continuing to dream.

Watching Heroes is like putting on a warm jumper and settling with a glass of good wine in your hand. Henare, Henwood and Blackburn make for rather good company indeed.

Heroes runs  to September 26 at Maidment Theatre,


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