25th September 2015
The playscript of The Sweethearts begins with three epigraphs about heroism, including this thought by Ernest Hemingway:
“As you get older it is harder to have heroes, but it is sort of necessary.”
It is an apt notion, explored to brilliantly cynical effect in Sarah Page’s play. The Sweethearts suggests that our need for heroes is at its greatest when it is hard to cope, as if to bask in another’s heroism protects one from self-doubt. Yet it is also presented as something compulsive, which deludes the brain and sickens the heart.
Set in Afghanistan’s Camp Bastion in the Summer of 2014, The Sweethearts tells the story of the titular female three piece, formed of Helena (Maria Yarjah), Mari (Doireann May White) and lead singer Coco (Sophie Stevens). Arriving at the camp to play a gig for the troops, they are assigned guards in the form of two privates, David (Joe Claflin) and Trevor (Jack Bannon), and Non Commissioned Officers Mark (Jack Derges) and Rachel (Laura Hanna). Trevor and Mark await the girls’ arrival with ravenous excitement, whilst sensitive David sees his posting as an opportunity to reconnect with Coco, his childhood sweetheart. An attack on the base scuppers the show, forcing Trevor, Mark and Rachel to hole up with their fearful charges, whilst David attempts to rescue the soldiers’ charismatic Commanding Officer, Captain Nicholls (Stevie Raine).
The play abounds with flawed, heroic figures. Mark claims he “doesn’t really give a shit” about saving a female squaddie’s life, but their implied unfulfilled relationship is inferred by Laura to be the cause of his womanising. Coco is a media darling and the main object of the male soldiers’ affection, but strongly resents the pressures of celebrity, and would destroy Mari and Helena’s careers if it meant she could live a normal life. Most compelling of all is Captain Nicholls, an effortlessly charming and competent officer, whom the soldiers elevate as the archetype of bravery. Yet as we see in the harrowing final scenes, he has been rendered a deeply angry figure by the death of his best friend, and has no qualms about humiliating others to alleviate his feelings of impotence.
The Sweethearts is an effortlessly immersive piece. Page has an exceptional gift for dialogue, and each character possesses a unique and intriguing voice – no simple task given that the eight characters share just two (all-consuming) professions. She is aided by a superb cast of actors, an empathetic director in Daniel Burgess, and a superbly detailed, claustrophobic set. Indeed, as the audience sit just metres from the stage, you can taste the tension with every beat, and smell the adrenaline seeping from the actors’ pores.
The humanity of Page’s characters, deconstructed throughout the play, is explored with studious precision. Jack Derges is utterly convincing as the self-confident Mark, who appears to be forever distracting himself from uncertain fears. Jack Bannon’s Trevor is a hilariously vulgar presence, sensitive at times, and darkly immature at others. Conversely, Laura Hanna’s Rachel is a contemplative, dissatisfied figure who so often represents the voice of reason, yet her complex emotional attachments to Mark and Captain Nicholls prevent her taking action during the traumatic penultimate scene. It is a deft and absorbing performance.
Stevie Raine’s performance as Captain Nicholls is vital to the quality of the piece, and he executes it with great aplomb. So convincing is he as the fatherly, battle-hardened figure of Act 1, the soldiers’ devotion to him is sometimes rather overstated, not least in Mark’s earnest declaration that he “[thinks] of everything [Nicholls has] done and [feels] insignificant”. His contribution to the final Act does great credit to the quality of Page’s central theme.
Whilst Sophie Stevens and Joe Claflin are excellent as Coco and David, the characters represent the one thing I found problematic about the play. Individually, they are compelling. Stevens’ Coco is an excellent foil for White and Yarjah’s brilliant comic performances, a sanguine counterpoint to Mari’s irrepressible positivity and Helena’s impulsivity. In turn, David is intriguingly introspective, and Claflin does a tremendous job of conveying the internal struggle between his personal and professional desires.
Coco and David’s romance is however a little unsatisfying. It serves to cleanse the palate after numerous bitter moments, and offer glimmers of hope in the midst of despair. Yet the rekindling of their relationship is only explored via a few brief interactions, and is too reliant on the characters’ fond reminiscences of the past. Furthermore it is often sidelined by the emerging tensions between Coco and the other characters, which set up the finale. Consequently the dramatic resolution of these tensions seemed far more meaningful than the clarification of her and David’s relationship – with Stevens, White and Raine deserving particular praise for how they handled a very difficult scene. Yet as the quality of Coco and David’s relationship plays a crucial part in The Sweethearts’ conclusion, I left the theatre more uncertain than I would have liked – not a bad feeling per se, but one I felt contrasted the hopeful future Page suggested that they would share.
The Sweethearts is a truly fascinating play, and I am certain that Sarah Page has a very bright future as a playwright. Although the central romance was less compelling than it needed to be, the rich themes, involving dialogue and universally excellent cast make for an unforgettable and thought-provoking performance.
Photos: Scott Rylander