Glockenspiel, Tristan Bates Theatre, London ★★

Reviewed for The Reviews Hub:

With the long-running conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, US Army personnel often find themselves accepting repeated tours of active service. Patched up physically before being sent out to fight again, veterans’ mental state is on the decline, with greater than average rates of depression, alcohol and drug abuse and suicide.

Steven Dykes’s new play looks at such issues through following the loved ones of three service personnel who are buried with military honours, but who all died while not on active service. Most effective of these are Tolu Stedford’s Debra, whose conversations with childhood friend Yolanda (Laura Asare) amusingly and believably distract from their preparations to attend the service for Debra’s daughter. Dykes’s ear for realistic dialogue is best used here, with comedic lines peppered throughout a conversation that flits between the banal and the profound just as any talk between friends can.

Less effective is the relationship between Coren Lawrence’s Zinnie, struggling with alcoholism and the loss of her brother, and her partner, academic Josh (Jon Parry) – who is having an affair with Zinnie’s bereaved sister-in-law. Parry struggles to find what little sympathetic characteristics there may be in the character, not least because of a tendency to deliver dialogue in a declamatory style directly to the audience.

Parry’s character is not the only one to indulge in such oratorical flourishes, suggesting it is a deliberate, if bewildering, directorial choice by Dykes. But while one could conceivably justify it for an assistant professor, however, in all cases where the device is used it risks steering the play from being involving into becoming a lecture.

Justin Williams’s simply impressive set design limits the ability for cast members to leave and arrive, making many of the first act’s scene changes overlong and puncturing some of its momentum. Some over-loud, distorted incidental music by James Neale covers the long gaps, drawing attention to the transitions rather than bridging them. Scene changes in Act 2, during which several cast members remain on stage while other characters’ stories continue, are more effective.

The second act throws some focus on the play’s most interesting relationship, between Lolade Rufai’s honour guard and Hebe Renard stepmother who is her age. As the pair spar over the memory of the father and husband they have lost, there is a sense of personal animus that enlivens what could so easily drift into polemicism.

The treatment and rehabilitation of troops, or the lack thereof, is clearly fertile ground for dramatisation, and Dykes skims the surface to provide an evening that’s not unentertaining. To explore fully the issues thrown up by the treatment of veterans, though, would require digging more deeply than here.