First World War drama Morning is Red holds a lot of promise. For one thing, it's staged in the evocative subterranean setting of the Town Hall's Old Police Cells – which ably represent a spartan, run-down, front-line hospital. And the set-up is poignant: an eager young soldier, wounded on his very first day of battle, shares a ward with a jaded army officer who's seen more than enough of war. The third character, a nurse, reminds us that women have their place in this story too… but sadly, the production is burdened by the sheer weight of WW1 clichés packed tight into its plot.
To be fair to playwright Nigel Fairs, perhaps they weren't clichés when he wrote the play back in 1989. And there are some well-conceived details: one scene, where the older man helps the younger remove his urine-soaked trousers, is visceral in a different way to the genre's norm. But the script relies heavily on surprises – sudden revelations which change your understanding of the characters and their lives – and those jolts lose their effectiveness when you've seen them deployed so many times before.
An interesting but relatively under-developed storyline involves the older man, who is gay and, clearly, feels more than the normal officers' affection towards his men. He is harbouring a secret too, something which has reduced him to the nervous wreck we encounter at the beginning and condemns him to disgrace in the eyes of his family. There's potential here, and actor Richard Stemp portrays his absent confusion well – but his story again is drawn towards familiar themes, which other work has comprehensively explored.
As the younger man, Dan Burgess captures a sense of misguided fervour, his frustration at being wounded translating into a disdain towards those who never served. He represents the national mood on Day One of the war, while Stemp embodies the exhaustion towards the end; the contrast is both obvious and poignant. As the nurse meanwhile, Suzanne Proctor holds the plot together. Brisk but not uncaring, there's something she's holding back, deaf to the soldier's repeated pleas for news from the front line.
But there are just too many unanswered questions. Why are these three people, and only these three people, together on this hospital ward? Surely the young soldier, despite the bandages on his eyes, couldn't fail to notice the startling thing that's revealed to him at the end? I realise that this is a world which has its own rules – but unless those rules are clear and justified, the inconsistencies will always be a distraction. 2018 is an obvious moment to revive a World War One play, but sadly, I don't think this one has stood the test of time.