Hayley Squires has barely graduated from drama school as an actor, but is already a Royal Court playwright – though this is hardly exceptional for the venue that has lately given us Polly Stenham and Anya Reiss. Squires’ first play, presented as one of the flagships in the Young Writers Festival, is to some extent set in familiar Court territory, but is unapologetic and direct.

Scenes alternate between teenagers Charlie (female) and Sammy and twentysomethings Emily, Lee and Danny. Sammy is preparing to fight a classmate after school; he and Charlie cannot quite acknowledge their feelings for each other. The older characters, three months earlier, are preparing for the funeral of Danny and Emily’s brother, killed on military service in Afghanistan; Lee, the dead man’s best friend, and Emily are similarly unable to acknowledge their sexual history, much less any emotional component to it. Charlie is the cousin of the deceased, her recent introspection and strangeness a reaction to his death.

To this extent it is unexceptionally one of the Royal Court’s not infrequent “It’s grim down south” plays: the action is set in Kent. Then the oblique associations begin to build: Kent, the garden of England, the county above which much of the Battle of Britain was fought. We are implicitly comparing bereavement in that context and in this, as well as the lives being lived by those at home and arguably defended by the war dead.

The title and staging furnish the most direct means of such a comparison: without a single reference by any character onstage, the music between scenes (director Jo McInnes makes even the scene-changes charged with threats of violence) consists of songs by Vera Lynn. Again, nothing is explicit: there is not a note about the allegedly bluebird-populated white cliffs of the county. It is just enough to sketch in a context. It reminds us that, however much more questionable the current war may be, those left behind still have real grief to cope with; and however squalid, drugged-up and antagonistic their lives, there is a kind of wartime atmosphere enveloping them and from which they must move forward.

Abby Rakic-Platt and Ted Riley excel as the awkward teens, although Squires cops out with the closing sentimental suggestion that “cuddles are the way forward”.

3 stars

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