“You’re anyone who’s ever been a member of Sugababes”
Enrique Iglesias said that he could be your hero, Mariah Carey reckons there’s a hero inside of you, Bonnie Tyler’s just holding out but Sarah Page is more interested in asking questions about what makes a hero in this day and age and just how fallible they are. This she does in unexpected ways in The Sweethearts, a play first seen at the Finborough as part of their new writing festival Vibrant last year, and now receiving a full run directed by Daniel Burgess.
Set in the boiling heat of Camp Bastion in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, a tent that is usually used as an office has been converted into sleeping quarters in advance of the visit of girl group The Sweethearts, out doing their bit for the troops and naturally being filmed by a TV crew for the publicity. But when the base comes under heavy fire, the pop stars are trapped with the soldiers assigned to look after them and their differences make an already volatile situation that much more explosive.
Page clearly has an ear for comic dialogue and she sets up these two groups brilliantly in her opening two scenes. The roughhousing banter between the soldiers about calling shotgun on the band member they fancy the most is deepened by the passing references to the families they’ve left behind, their exploits in combat and their unflagging loyalty to their CO. And flagging in the oppressive heat, there’s much fun to be had as the singers prepare for their gig but even there, the sacrifices for their level of celebrity are proving harder to bear.
And once the two groups are thrust together, the tone darkens considerably as their priorities clash and their vastly different life experiences are thrown into stark relief. The divisive final scene pushes this to the extreme as the impact of life on the front-line is exposed in all its shocking ugliness, the uncompromising directness deliberately tough to take. It’s a sharp swerve but one which demonstrates the vicious unpredictability of PTSD, captured eloquently in Stevie Raine’s performance and made all the more distressing for the eye-winking charm he’s displayed up to that point.
Burgess encourages strong work from his cast, allowing nuance to break through stereotypes especially for the soldiers. So Jack Derge’s swaggering “walking erection” Mark demonstrates his innately heroic nature to protect his comrades as Jack Bannon’s brash newcomer private Trevor becomes painfully traumatised, Joe Claflin’s soulful poet is moving and Laura Hanna’s Corporal Taylor displays a maturity that belies her years. The singers have a little less to work with but Maria Yarjah and Doireann May White deliver serious laughs and Sophie Stevens evokes real ennui as the disaffected lead singer.