sat 26/09/2020

The Sweethearts, Finborough Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

The Sweethearts, Finborough Theatre

The Sweethearts, Finborough Theatre

New Camp Bastion tragicomedy about war, heroism and terrible pop music

Girls allowed: Doireann May White, Maria Yarjah and Sophie Stevens as the girl band in 'The Sweethearts'Scott Rylander

Entertaining our troops overseas has already proved a fruitful subject for drama, and not only for its show-within-a-show potential. Peter Nichols’ Privates on Parade – revived in the West End three years ago – combined latrine-level banter and tawdry cabaret to create pathos and comedy. Now, updating the military status quo, comes The Sweethearts, a new play by Sarah Page marking the first anniversary of the withdrawal of British troops from Afghanistan.

Entertaining our troops overseas has already proved a fruitful subject for drama, and not only for its show-within-a-show potential. Peter Nichols’ Privates on Parade – revived in the West End three years ago – combined latrine-level banter and tawdry cabaret to create pathos and comedy. Now, updating the military status quo, comes The Sweethearts, a new play by Sarah Page marking the first anniversary of the withdrawal of British troops from Afghanistan.

Coco, Mari and Helena are a manufactured girl-band – "The Sweethearts" of the title – inured to their every move being splashed across the tabloids and their image being plastered on every teenage bedroom wall. In need of some positive publicity before the launch of their second album, they agree, without much enthusiasm, to fly out to Camp Bastion in Helmand Province to do a gig for the troops. “These charity gigs are always in bloody awful countries,” whinges Helena. “I wish someone would fight a war in Marbella.”

In its final 10 minutes, 'The Sweethearts' comes close to touching theatre gold 

Three soldiers have been tasked with the girls’ safety during their visit – “a bit like asking a wolf to guard a steak,” in the words of one of them – and the casual cruelty that emerges as the men jockey for prime sexual position is horribly convincing. There is nuance too: Private Robins (Joe Claflin) is bullied for writing poems in secret. Lance Corporal Savy (Jack Derges, pictured below, left, with Jack Bannon) is a swaggering playboy, yet keeps quiet about the medal he earned for saving the life of a female team-mate. Private Smith (an endearingly Tiggerish Jack Bannon) is the new boy, arriving at the fag-end of a 13-year-old war and still terrified by loud bangs. More complex is Corporal Taylor (Laura Hanna, terrific describing a Taliban ambush), who struggles to maintain the tough, potty-mouthed outer shell she has developed to be one of the boys.

The banter between the three singers is just as lively, but suffers from some dodgy delivery – and if words are inaudible in a tiny auditorium like the Finborough’s, there’s a real problem. Director Daniel Burgess seems less assured in his handling of the girls’ scenes, shifting into a cartoonish register that isn’t necessary with writing as funny as this. These women are vacuous and the playwright has vicious fun with them, while allowing the odd unwittingly trenchant point to poke through the fluffy chatter about make-up and hair. When warned by a soldier that the local opium fields are highly dangerous and she risks getting shot if she goes there, Helena says: “I thought you guys were supposed to have all that under control by now. Aren’t you, like, hashtag winning?”

Inevitably, there is jeopardy, and it comes on thick and fast. First, Coco (a ravishingly pretty but inert Sophie Stevens) threatens to “do a Robbie Williams” and drop out of the band just before going on stage. Cue sob story about the hard life of the 21st-century pin-up. Then, more arrestingly, comes an attack on the camp by the Taliban. Cue shell blasts that almost blow you out of your seat.

It’s at this point that the play finds its groove, as the army personnel click into their well-prepared roles (apart from the new boy, who whimpers), and the garrulous pop stars are mute and cowed. Its theme isn’t just the clash of cultures, hard and soft: it’s heroism. Can a pop star (who can’t even sing) really be a hero? Is a soldier more or less heroic if he doesn’t give way to grief over fallen comrades, or if he bottles up his feelings about the newborn son he may not live to see? (Stevie Raine is very strong as new dad Captain Nicholls). What happens in the space left on the pedestal when a hero is knocked off it?

In its final 10 minutes, The Sweethearts comes close to touching theatre gold: those electric moments on stage when the walls fall away and every heart in the house is in the mouth. This production needs more even casting and some tweaks of direction to fully realise that fabulous potential. At heart this is a piece superbly conceived for a small, cramped stage. Eight characters thrown together in a tent under mortar attack: how much more claustrophobic can it get? For all its minor flaws (note to playwright: the romance is superfluous), this play leaves shrapnel in both heart and mind.

Three soldiers are tasked with the girls' safety: a bit like asking a wolf to guard a steak

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters