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The relationship between war poet Wilfred Owen and his idol Siegfried Sassoon is told in this worthy but restrictive play

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The brief relationship between First World War poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen is being put under the microscope this week at the Geoffrey Whitworth Theatre, Crayford.

Not About Heroes by Stephen MacDonald (whose name is omitted from the programme) was written in 1982 and features just the two men, set mainly during their stay at Craiglockhart War Hospital in 1917.

Sassoon (Ross Holland) was already a famous poet when he met Owen (Matthew Friett). Owen’s attitude was apparently one of intense hero-worship, bordering on obsession. But Sassoon recognised a latent talent in the younger man which he selflessly nurtured. They became friends, and perhaps more. Tragically, Owen was killed just one week before the Great War ended.

Their age gap in real life was very small (seven years), but in this production Holland as Sassoon appears twice as old as the boyish Friett. This adds an extra level of meaning to the adulation Owen bestows upon his Kentish-born mentor. In the so-called ‘lost generation’, many fathers lost their sons, and sons their fathers; Owen’s needs here seem as much paternal as they do companionate.

Throughout the play, which is directed with a firm touch by Barry Hooper, the playwright’s agenda is clear: to present the poetry of these two men as being acknowledged ‘works of great importance’. As an audience, we are told what to think, rather than being allowed the luxury of forming our own opinions.

I found this didactic approach rather restrictive, especially with regard to empathising with the men and their traumatic experiences. There were times when I would have been happier just listening to the poems themselves, rather than yet more anguished exchanges between the two men.

Ross Holland was superb as Sassoon — at times aloof, yet capable of great acts of generosity when moved. A fascinating and intelligent actor, his interpretation of MacDonald’s dialogue, based largely on letters and diaries, was unerringly truthful.

Matthew Friett had the harder part. In conveying Owen’s continual shyness towards his literary idol and his awed reverence to the poet and his reputation, he was apt to come across as a less well-rounded figure overall. But he did have the lion’s share of emotional scenes, which he handled extremely well.

Christine Angell’s austere set design of white backdrop and barbed wire was brought vividly to life by Andy Woolliscroft’s dramatic lighting effects.

The next production at the Geoffrey Whitworth Theatre is the musical Promises, Promises by Burt Bacharach, Hal David and Neil Simon, from December 3-11. Tickets: 01322 526390.

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