Not every production includes a credit for drill training, but then few plays arrive as beautifully drilled as Howard Davies’ National Theater revival of “Chips With Everything.” There may seem little left to be discovered about the “G.I. Jane” rigors of military training, but Arnold Wesker’s 1962 play harks back to a time when such regimens served a social point, not a film star’s ego.
The production arrived quietly at the end of Richard Eyre’s National Theater tenure, somewhat eclipsed by the heavyweight openings (“Othello,” “An Enemy of the People,” “The Invention of Love”) that followed it. But as a piece of ensemble acting and stagecraft, it’s without peer in London now: This “Chips” keeps its own exhilarating beat.
So assured is Davies’ hand that it flatters the play even when the writing doesn’t rise to the production. While Wesker’s 1959 “The Kitchen” made a thunderous case for revival under Stephen Daldry’s direction several years back at the Royal Court, the same writer’s subsequent play has both its longueurs (a pair of obvious and overwritten second-act set pieces) and confusions, not least an ambivalence about the central character, Pip (a sterling Rupert Penry-Jones).
Still, Davies and a crackerjack cast charge ahead. The terrain may seem familiar from “Biloxi Blues” (or, in London of late, Jonathan Lewis’ “Our Boys”), but from the thrillingly lit and staged opening — Rick Fisher’s lighting is the evening’s secret weapon — the play’s Royal Air Force maneuvers seem utterly fresh as nine new conscripts make this training camp their home.
Wesker’s lasting question is about the society to which they will contribute: The working classes may, as Pip says, eat “chips with everything,” but can England find it in itself to be a country for everyone?
That issue is implicit in the play’s central friendship between elitist Pip and the illiterate Chas (Eddie Marsan). Other recruits include the feisty Corporal Hill (James Hazeldine), whose anti-Semitism passes as casually as the homosexual advances of the pilot officer (Angus Wright ), and Smiler (Julian Kerridge), so-called because he can’t stop smiling, a tic the officers — led by Julian Glover’s wing commander — are eager to break. While Ian Dunn’s Andrew quotes Scotland’s Robbie Burns, Paul Reynolds’ grinning Dodger plays the buffoon. All the boys participate in a stealthy raid on a night watchman that remains a model mime feat of its own: Not since “Noises Off” has a cast’s physical dexterity elicited such applause.
After Pip, who calls himself a snob but not a prick, strikes up a rapport with Chas (who is eager to learn about “enocomics”), the play asks whether any alliance can be forged in a milieu containing the invisible barriers that Rob Howell’s cage of a set makes explicit. The ending suggests that the playwright might not be any more confident of that prospect than is his lead character. His name no accident, Pip was born to the great expectations that his fellow recruits can only dream about, amid a staging to mark the “Chips With Everything” of anyone’s dreams.