Syndrome (Tristan Bates Theatre)

Syndrome (Tristan Bates Theatre, until February 29th)


Thousands of British and US soldiers involved in the 1990-91 Gulf War found themselves suffering from a range of more than 50 different medical conditions when they returned home.

Medically unexplained symptoms, including chronic fatigue, indigestion, nerve and joint pain, insomnia, muscle aches, rashes, respiratory disorders, narcolepsy, memory loss and severe mental health issues, led to scientific research being carried out but with no full explanation as to the causes.

Thirty years later, as organisations and individuals continue to press for answers to what became known as Gulf War Syndrome, an important and strong new play, which explores the experiences of four British soldiers during and after the conflict, attempts to consider the mental, physical and personal effects of the war against the Iraquis.

Tina Jay’s penetrating Syndrome at the Tristan Bates Theatre tells the story of the four men as they wait to move into combat in Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Storm then, in the second act, jumps forward five years to see how civilian life is treating them back home.

It is never a comfortable narrative. The stresses of battle are tense enough in the first half, broken by friendly rivalry and joshing, but much is made of the troops’ exposure to pesticides, vaccines, gases from burning oil wells, biological and chemical weapons, anti-nerve-gas and an alarming array of medication. Revealing too much would spoil the impact of the piece but suffice it to say the consequences are harrowing and terrible.

Making his directorial debut Jack Brett Anderson takes a considered approach to the writing, ensuring that the intensity of the drama is balanced by a genuine shock value of this being something real which happened to tens of thousands of people fighting. There is an almost military precision in the way he allows the story to develop as the men realise that in war someone has to lose and someone has to win.

Three of the four actors are making their professional stage debuts and they do with utter courage and conviction, each commanding attention as they show how the young soldiers found ways of coping with life in the desert, not knowing what the future might bring.

Romario Simpson’s Ray is brash and self-assured, with his mind fixed on sleep and sex; Kerim Hassan as Deno is the lad who signed up as a dare and whose previous experience of sand had been on a summer beach holiday; Akshay Kumar’s Gabe is the quiet loner with a devastating secret, turning his hand to drawing what he sees around him as a means of escape. Matt, played by Robert Wilde, is perhaps the most interesting of the four, a public school product, married for 12 years, keen to respond to the call of duty in many areas of his life, with Wilde excavating the depths of this likeable but complex army second lieutenant.

The production is supported considerably by Jonjo McGuire’s impressive sets: in the first act a desert tent in which the foursome await their orders, in the second a bedsit and separate shady bedroom mirroring lives which have been forgotten by a system which continues to view the health issues as largely psychosomatic and with backgrounds that mean nothing to a society which may have some limited understanding of PTSD but not the particular horrors inflicted by the Gulf War.

Lighting (Matt Carnazza) and sound (Tom Wilde) add subtleties of atmosphere from the hazy sun-scorched sands and haunting Middle Eastern strains to the throbbing rhythms and beats of a busy Britain nearing a new millennium.

Syndrome has much to offer in a debate that needs to be ongoing instead of ignored or covered up. The 33,000 ex-soldiers believed to be suffering in the UK alone may just have a critical and compelling new ally in fighting their cause.

David Guest

Images: Alex Dobbs

A version of this review originally appeared on The Spy in the Stalls