Sunday, 27 September 2015

Theatre review: The Sweethearts

Sarah Page's play The Sweethearts, which has graduated from a Vibrant reading to a full production at the Finborough, introduces us to two very different sets of characters: First, a troop in Afghanistan, preparing to hand over power but still getting regularly attacked by the Taliban. Mark (Jack Derges) is the resident ladies' man with delusions of being Maverick from Top Gun; David (Joe Claflin) the intellectual of the group, teased for writing poetry; Trevor (Jack Bannon) is a relative newcomer who recently dumped his girlfriend back home, and has come to regret it. They're being supervised by their Corporal, Rachel (Laura Hanna,) one of the lads except in her obvious crush on their Commanding Officer, Captain Nicholls (Stevie Raine,) a much-decorated hero they all hold in awe to one degree or another.

Nicholls has given these four a much sought-after job on the base, as the troops are about to be entertained by a popular girlband, and somebody needs to be their security detail.

These girls are The Sweethearts, who are definitely not based on the The Sugababes. (To be fair they're really not, because at one point it's suggested that if one of them left the band, it would actually matter.) Settling into their tent are the stroppy Helena (Maria Yarjah,) who's in and out of rehab on a regular basis; overly earnest, scatty Mari (Doireann May White) and the lead singer, Coco (Sophie Stevens,) who's fed up of life in a band and keeps threatening to quit. Coco doesn't know she's about to see a face from her past - the reason David's been chosen for this detail is that the two of them dated as teenagers.

Page introduces us to both groups in a pair of very funny scenes, first with a lot of barracks humour from the soldiers, and then with the pampered pop stars being fish out of water in the desert heat, while still maintaining very pop-star preoccupations - the moment of respectful admiration at the very mention of Posh Spice is a great gag. It makes it all the more effective when she throws both groups together, when a Taliban attack puts everyone in danger, and confines the singers into their tent with a security team who seem to genuinely believe they have a chance of charming the celebrities into bed.

Daniel Burgess's production gets off to a great start and maintains a good mix of silly lines and darker humour; it's obvious that something's going to come along and put an end to the fun and games, and while Nicholls eventually snapping after years of pressure is powerfully presented, I did find the way the scene plays out problematic: I can understand why Nicholls might flip in the way he does, because there's no reason his reaction should be logical, and even why the others might even back him up, out of misplaced duty or sheer fear. But while Coco does pick the worst possible time to have a moment of defiance, the consequences have an unfortunate suggestion of slut-shaming that isn't backed up by anything that's come before. It's a problematic ending but one that doesn't undo a lot of impressive work and many laugh-out-loud scenes before it.

The Sweethearts by Sarah Page is booking until the 17th of October at the Finborough Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes straight through.

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