Veterans Day review at Finborough Theatre, London – ‘melodramatic’

Charlie de Bromhead, Craig Pinder and Roger Braban in Veterans Day at Finborough Theatre, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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American political writer Donald Freed made his reputation as a sharp critic of the US establishment. His 1989 play Veterans Day, written in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, contains plenty of anger about how ordinary soldiers can be cynically exploited by government policy but rarely flames into dramatic life.

Three veteran GIs meet at a Veterans Administration hospital for a remembrance ceremony: Private Leslie R Holloway is a shell-shocked, wheelchair-using survivor from the First World War, John MacCormick Butts was a sergeant in the Second World War before becoming a wealthy second-hand car businessman, and Colonel Walter Kercelik, a highly decorated soldier of the Vietnam War, is now an instructor at West Point. But while they wait in the wings to be honoured by the commander-in-chief ‒ the US president ‒ a subversive alternative narrative to the jingoistic flag-waving is uncovered.

Although Freed has deliberately selected veterans from three contrasting wars there is an unconvincing account of post-traumatic stress disorder expressed within an absurdly plotted conspiracy scenario. Hannah Boland Moore’s production features the singing of well-known war songs in Liam Bunster’s paint-splattered storage room, while Matt Downing’s sound includes bombastic military marches from the offstage commemoration.

The cast and director do their best, but the material is awkward and frequently melodramatic. Craig Pinder gives a lively performance as the garrulously patriotic salesman Butts who bemoans how the “enemy” Japanese are winning the war in the international car market. He is nicely contrasted by Charlie de Bromhead’s taciturn Kercelik whose splendidly bemedalled uniform conceals a seething discontent with the top brass. And as the almost wholly mute Holloway Roger Braban conveys through trembling body language the isolation of someone trapped in memories of past traumas.

Anti-war play that frequently tips into melodrama