I recall a conversation I once had during the 2012 Olympic Games in London with a couple of Army soldiers who were patrolling sporting venues, because a private security firm had bitten off more than they could chew, and failed to deliver. Only half-jokingly, they thought the charity ‘Help for Heroes’ could do nothing for them, because they did not consider themselves ‘heroes’, just personnel fulfilling contractual obligations, working for a firm. “Fair enough,” said one, “it’s f*cking risky, but at the end of the day, it’s still a job.”
The Sweethearts considers this point in some depth, with an appropriate balance of wit (or, rather, Army banter) and gripping drama. A tent in Camp Bastion is physically transformed into sleeping quarters for a visiting pop group, The Sweethearts, a female trio; the tent metaphorically becomes a cauldron, with the strong personalities of the troops combine with the equally strong personalities of the band members.
Military operations mean a concert to be performed by The Sweethearts is postponed, and while both soldiers and singers wait it out, an awful lot about the characters’ personal circumstances is revealed. The lead singer, Coco (Sophie Stevens), threatens, in the words of her animated and diva-like bandmate Helena (Maria Yarjah), “to do a Robbie Williams” on the group. The Commanding Officer, Captain Thomas Nicholls (Stevie Raine) later scolds Coco for being so shallow.
I am in agreement with Coco, however: the celebrity lifestyle of endless photoshoots and constant globetrotting is indeed largely meaningless. I couldn’t help being in sympathy with her, not least for being on the receiving end of a dressing-down (in more than one sense of the word), and if the paparazzi are indeed on her toes, and her every move and outfit analysed both in print and online, I can’t blame her for wanting to do something else with her life.
This is, however, just the surface. The issues explored in this play come quickly, one after another, perhaps not quite the ‘shock and awe’ that the Bush Administration meant. The soldiers are almost always having to come to terms with losing one of their own during skirmishes or ambushes. These losses are compounded by close shaves while on operation, and correspondence from home is sometimes in the form of Dear John letters. Surprisingly, it is Nicholls, the oh-so-strong leader, almost worshipped by his subordinates, who ends up the least able of the soldiers in the room, to cope with bereavement.
Still, it’s an unexpected delight to see the band members struggle with even being in Afghanistan at all. The high temperatures are affecting their make-up, y’see. Chortling aside at their apparent vacuity, even this can be looked at from different angles – are they being ridiculous or sensible? After all, if they are due to perform to thousands of soldiers, are they not right to want to look their best for their audience? There is so much that is not straightforward in this play: an instance of hair-pulling, for example, would rarely be justified in Blighty. But what about a military base, where failure to follow a Commanding Officer’s orders is gross insubordination?
While there are no weak links in the cast to report, I found both Laura Hanna’s Corporal Rachel Taylor and Joe Claflin’s Private David Robins especially compelling. Taylor’s dislike of The Sweethearts, and of chart music in general, is palpable; her reactions, expressions and responses as she shares a confined space with the pop stars, having been tasked with overseeing their security, had me equally intrigued and amused. Robins may have begun as being derided, particularly by Lance Corporal Mark Savy (Jack Derges), but emerged at the end of the play more of a man than even his Commanding Officer.
Well-paced, even when events took a more serious turn, it’s a show that left me with more energy coming out of the Finborough Theatre than when I went in. This show took me by complete surprise.
I had expected a story about a band that goes to Camp Bastion to perform a concert. I got that, plus a whole lot more besides. A riveting production, a first-rate cast, a strong script, and a credible storyline, The Sweethearts provides an insightful look at life on the battlefield. This is theatre as it should be: absorbing, perceptive, and above all, entertaining.
Review by Chris Omaweng
The Sweethearts by Sarah Page
22nd September to 17th October 2015
The World Premiere
“These charity gigs are always in bloody awful countries. I wish someone would fight a war in Marbella. I wish there were starving people in bloody Hawaii.”
A world premiere, originally seen as a staged reading as part of Vibrant 2014 – A Festival of Finborough Playwrights.
Coco, Mari and Helena are The Sweethearts, a manufactured girl band who are rarely off the front page of the tabloids. In need of some positive publicity, they travel to Afghanistan to do a special gig for the troops at Camp Bastion before the base is handed over to Afghan officials. A group of battle weary soldiers, chosen to protect these three beautiful celebrities, eagerly await their arrival. But when there’s an attack on the base, The Sweethearts and the soldiers are thrown together and forced to wait it out in very close quarters…
Marking the first anniversary of the departure of British Troops from Afghanistan after a thirteen year campaign and the deaths of 453 British service personnel, The Sweethearts is a new play about the people we choose to make into our heroes and how we tear them back down…
Suitable for ages 15+
Directed by Daniel Burgess
Designed by Alex Marker
Lighting by Paul Comerford
Sounds by Edward Lewis
Presented by Announcement Productions and Raise Dark Theatre company in association with Neil McPherson for the Finborough Theatre.
Cast: Jack Bannon, Joe Claflin, Jack Derges, Laura Hanna, Stevie Raine, Sophie Stevens, Doireann May White and Maria Yarjah
Thursday 24th September 2015