If you are of a certain age, you will know what people mean when they refer to “The War”. You will be able to cast your mind back and imagine a type of blustery former warrior, of proud bearing, and fixed views on pretty much everything. Having been in the War, they were accorded great respect, and it was a privilege when they’d share a fraction of their tales with some snotty kid who’s naturally hanker for the full gory details, but was happy to get the smallest tidbit of life in khaki.
Last night I saw Peter Houghton, bring to life a remarkable facsimile of those blustery old soldiers. In his one man play “The Colours“, he inhabits Colour Sergeant Tommy Atkins. Veteran of the First World War (one of the Kaiser’s original old-contemptibles), of El-Alemain in the Second, and now, in 1946, stationed in a lonely outpost in the British colony of Batundi in Africa. It’s a time of reflection for Colour Sergeant Atkins as his devotion to his regiment, to King and Empire, is not being reciprocated by a post War government that is drained, heavily indebted, and seeking to free itself from its burdens.
It’s a brilliantly funny portrayal of a man who knows nothing but the Army life and who knows where he sits in the pecking order. He knows that the Africans are cheating thieves, that the Irish are untrustworthy and stupid, and like to live in pig stys, that Americans are poseurs and soft, that Kiwis and Australians have big chips on their shoulders hence the loud mouthed boosterism of their very modest achievements, that the grey uniformed Prussian Calvalry are really just men. You can tell that when you put the bayonet into them. And that the British Army is the most glorious army of all.
At one point Sergeant Atkins quotes those famous Kipling lines, that even today have a chilling relevance.
When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Just roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.
Houghton is a genius. His script is speckled throughout with historical British military tidbits, but given a real sense of life and place by Sergeant Tommy Atkins who revisits his life in an often hilarious, but intimately poignant way. Houghton’s portrayal of the man, could easily have become a caricature with his handlebar moustache and bilious attitude, but it doesn’t. It is really quite moving, and as the play draws to a close I found myself captivated and dreading what might befall him.
Houghton’s skill as a writer and performer is such that he leaves you hanging over the cliff and then brings you safely back in the denouement. At the very last Sergeant Tommy Atkins gets to keep what he needs, and deserves. His dignity.
I really wish I’d seen this play earlier, to let Club Troppo readers in Melbourne know about it. As it is, today, Saturday, is the last performance. So if time permits, instead of taking the safe option of Pizza and a Vid, why not drop the kids off at Auntie Flo’s and get down to the new playhouse, and really indulge yourself with a surprising and really brilliant piece of work. You won’t be disappointed.