Nelson's Column is arguably the best-known monument in the UK – yet as time goes by, fewer and fewer of us understand just why Horatio Nelson was granted such high honour. This one-man play, written and performed by Nicholas Collett, aims to right that particular wrong. We first meet Collett, in character as Nelson, standing on top of his own miniature pillar; he's dressed in grey – he's a statue after all – but sports a colourful twinkle in his eye. It's New Year's Eve in London, and as he looks down on the revelry below him, Nelson reminisces about his triumph at the naval Battle of Trafalgar and reflects on how little's truly changed in the 200 years since then.
Collett's Nelson seems rather jolly about being stuck on top of a column; but then again, he seems rather jolly about everything. He tells the story of Trafalgar with gentle warmth, gradually filling in the history without overloading on the detail. His friendly persona makes for an accessible, instantly-likeable play – but on the flip side, it's hard to reconcile the avuncular figure in front of us with the steely will a wartime admiral must surely require. Did Nelson really pray for his men to show mercy, as Collett's script claims? Perhaps he did, but I need to be convinced of that, and the play as it stands is too unremittingly favourable to feel entirely persuasive.
Alongside Nelson, we meet a collection of his able seamen, each just as ably evoked by the versatile Collett. While Nelson describes the tactics of naval conflict from the rarefied heights of his column, the other characters offer a perspective from further down the chain of command – where the mechanics of battle are more startling, and far more visceral. There's an amputation scene I couldn't quite bear to watch, even though it's just a jacket lying on the operating table; and that's just one of many evocative images conjured with a small set of props. A row of suitcases represents a ship, while a great-coat doubles as a body or as a homeless veteran's blanket.
An escapade involving a berserking Irish sailor is something of a sideshow, but adds a dash of excitement and a touch of humour to the latter stages of the play. But once again, the dénouement to that story feels slightly too good to be true; at the height of his rage, he turns against his own companions to defend a surrendering French officer. There's a theme here: at no point does anybody do anything less than admirable, and nobody – least of all Nelson – has any doubts or regrets. Ironically, for all the blood and terror of battle, there's little dramatic conflict in this play.
And while the script draws clever parallels between Nelson's tale and the present day, it does have a tendency to hammer them home. Towards the start, when an ageing Trafalgar veteran explains how he's gained and then lost an extra weekly pension, we can all spot the comparison to the games of swings and roundabouts contemporary politicians play. Later on, though, Collett displays a tendency to lecture, and repeatedly underlines points which might have been more effective if we'd been left to work them out for ourselves.
Both literally and figuratively, then, Collett's script puts Nelson on a pedestal. A little light and shade would make for a more convincing play – and a little more subtlety might help its political messages stick more firmly in the mind. When all's said and done though, Nelson: The Sailors' Story is a heroic yarn well told – and an engaging introduction to a once-celebrated figure, now slowly fading from our history.