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Black Mirrors
Published on Wednesday, 24 August 2011

4 stars

theSpaces @ Surgeons Hall (venue website)
22-27 Aug, 3:35pm-4:25pm
Reviewed by Richard Stamp

 Recommended for age 14+ only.

We've seen a lot of plays, over the last couple of years, which delve into the life of a soldier. But with the smallest twist to that concept, Black Mirrors manages to deliver something genuinely new; for rather than studying the rank and file, its throws a light on the officers. From joining up, through training at Sandhurst to life in Afghanistan, it's an insightful portrayal of life-changing years.

The ensemble cast - two men and two women - share interleaved monologues, inspired, the programme tells us, by conversations with a single young officer.  As they answer unheard questions from an unseen interviewer, they reveal much I simply hadn't considered about what it's like to be a leader at the age of twenty-two. I'm not sure whether the quotes are verbatim, but they certainly have the ring of authenticity - even the stumbles and hesitancies are revealing. Telling, too, are the subtle ironies deftly woven in: "I don't think I've changed much," says the officer, at exactly the moment he's fastidiously adjusting and re-adjusting his shoes.

In fact, physical repetition is a recurring theme in this work. At first it seemed a touch over-used - the boredom of the barrack-room routine sometimes leached out into the play - but it grew effective over time, lulling me into the same sense of quiet conformity as the officers themselves. Polishing spoons, folding handkerchiefs, lacing shoes - these mundane actions, repeated again and again, reflect the transformation of ordinary men and women into officers in the Army.

But needless to say, they don't stay at Sandhurst forever. As their training ends, the script moves into a second, quietly menacing phase; yet their fear isn't of deployment to Afghanistan, but of rotting at a desk back home. The ending, when it comes, comes quickly - and is all the more powerful for its quiet understatement, elegantly wrapping up both the visual motifs and the spoken dialogue in a single, straightforward, yet haunting line.

While all four actors were strong, the strongest of all, I felt, were the male leads. Robert Taylor has a compelling earnestness and a piercing stare, while Graeme Kelly is the slow-burner, the character we learn to connect with over the course of the play. It's a curious piece, Black Mirrors, but it shines a different light on an important subject - and it'll stick a long time in my mind.

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