Close Quarters – Review – Sheffield Studio Theatre
By Eve Luddington, October 2018
Close Quarters, by Kate Bowen, is receiving its world premiere in the Crucible Studio. It’s a co-production by Sheffield Theatres and Out Of Joint, a national touring company committed to developing and producing ‘political, humane and socially engaged shows’. Close Quarters is all of those and a quality entertainment too.
It was written as women were being invited to train for close combat roles in the British infantry for the first time in history. Bowen’s driving interest is in the women as individuals: why did they enlist and how do they cope as a tiny minority? She’s imagined a time in 2022 when three of the new female recruits begin their first tour of duty.
One of the play’s major themes is the vital importance of supportive teamwork, however testing the circumstances. The production team itself underwent a major test of its strength just a few days before Press Night when a new actor had to be recruited to play the leading role: a physically fit black actor with fast responses and the ability to perform a 90-minute piece without interval, script in hand. Hats off to Adiza Shardow, and to the cast and production team she joined: after two days of intensive rehearsals they give a vibrant performance of a gripping piece of writing.
The audience is greeted by a dimly lit open stage. At the back, a two storey space with small office area; to the side a vehicle piled with logs. A few trunks and petrol cans are lying around. An open door gives a hazy glimpse of grassland beyond. There’s a wriggly line of light across the floor, soon defined as a section of the border between Russia and Estonia. The entire design, by Max Jones, suggests action waiting to happen.
Private Findlay (Adiza Shardow) walks into the spotlight to set the scene for us. She’s recalling her first posting some years ago when her infantry platoon was stationed here as a ‘reassuring’ British presence for the Estonians. It was, supposedly, a safe deployment for four newly qualified squaddies, three women and a man: no-one expected live action. Of course, something did happen and we’re about to discover what, as Findlay’s memories are brought to life.
Building a taut anticipation of something about to happen is one of this production’s many strengths.
At the start there’s plenty of play-fighting and bawdry, focused mainly on sexual frustration: these four squaddies are a tight-knit group with risky but understood rules of engagement. Their rowdy exchanges are juxtaposed forcefully with the tight discipline of army manoeuvres which punctuate the scenes with gob-smacking physicality. The throbbing music composed by Dyfan Jones fits those manoeuvres perfectly.
“Absorbing dramatic journey”
In her first full-length play, Bowen has written a cracking story and six interesting three-dimensional characters. She shows a great ear for dialogue, including strong accents and occasional snippets of dialect. Sadly, I’m not attuned to Scottish or Welsh and missed a few details but that’s a niggle. Bowen thanks the director, Kate Wasserberg, and dramaturg, Catriona Craig, in her script for their input. Certainly, it’s a beautifully paced piece which feels collaborative: it drew me in and took me on an absorbing dramatic journey. Some of the action is inevitably reported, not seen: for me, this was a strength – it allowed us to focus on the results.
The story banters its way entertainingly and revealingly towards an extraordinarily tense highlight. Compassion and instinctive bravery compel one of the squaddies to break loose from the team and commit a blunder. The consequences are dire – for an entire region.
Gripping in itself, the plot is also an effective vehicle for Bowen’s major interest: women taking on close combat roles in an overwhelmingly male organisation. The equipment weighs a ‘ton’, the uniforms – right down to the pants – are designed for men and, most importantly, there’s a predominantly macho ethos.
The women in the squad, Privates Findlay, Cormack and Davies, have excelled in their training but are all potential prey for the male bullies in their larger platoon. Davies has some strong defences: she’s as physical and foul-mouthed as the men, and brazenly lesbian. Findlay’s experiences as a highly intelligent black woman raised in a white working class area have made her quite resilient too. Cormack, who followed her childhood friend Findlay into the army, is as able and athletic as the others but she’s a particular target for dangerous macho behaviour, even before her blunder. Armstrong, the only man of the squad and a sensitive peacemaker, is the butt of his male colleagues’ jokes. But whatever harassment they receive or their internal arguments, the squaddies close ranks when their superiors sniff a problem. Reporting harassment might make matters worse for them; confessing disagreements makes them weaker as a team.
It would have been easy to portray those superior officers stereotypically, as brutes. Refreshingly, these are humane. Sergeant Adeyemi is a good leader with belief in his squad, regardless of their gender. Captain Sands from the Intelligence Corps, presumably a rare example of a military woman in charge, is so strongly alert to the particular hazards for women in a combative role that she suggests alternative career paths in the army to all of them.
Kate Wasserberg directs the production with skilled finesse. The moments of tension and release in the play are so sharply and well contrasted that I could feel the audience swinging from one emotion to another. The thoroughness and precision of her work, and that of the movement directors (Rachel Bown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown) was proved when Adiza Shadrow joined the acting team, cold.
“An excellent production”
Four outstanding young actors play the squaddies: Adiza Shardow (Findlay), Sophie Melville (Davies), Chloe-Ann Tylor (Cormack) and Dylan Wood (Armstrong). After working together for only two days, they had to convince the audience they were a strong team, and they do so superbly. Their timing and rapport are excellent, and it needs to be: whatever their individual physical prowess – and this is an admirably fit and energetic cast – they rely on one another to perform the ‘loose’ tomfoolery and the strictly disciplined military drills. Individually and as a team, they give an awesome display of athleticism, acrobatics and control.
Sophie Melville must be a gymnast too – and Chloe-Ann Tylor was so athletic I wondered if she’d actually taken army training. All of them also communicate very effectively the individuality of their characters, living their parts. So too does Bradley Banton as Sergeant Adeyemi, able to banter with the gang when it suits but to remove himself and give credible leadership when it matters. For me, Kathryn O’Reilly might relax a bit on the ‘senior officer’ mode to let the seasoned Intelligence Officer come through more naturally. It’s just another minor niggle.
Overall I saw an excellent production, the whole experience being greater than the sum of its parts. Sarah Jane Shiels’ lighting design deserves a mention too: it subtly enhances and accentuates mood.
I have absolutely no experience of the military and cannot judge the accuracy of this piece but it certainly opened my eyes to some of the harsh issues of life on the front-line and, in particular, those arising when a predominantly male organisation invites women to join without adjusting its ethos and practice. Perhaps similar issues arise when any organisation decides to include a minority group but expects it to fit in with the status quo.
images: Mark Douet