Robin Hooper’s new play Love Your Soldiers is an undeniably ambitious piece; despite a relatively short running time, it attempts to cover an awful lot of ground. It’s principally concerned with contemporary warfare and the reality of life as a soldier in Afghanistan. But it also explores the shifting nature of relationships with friends and family back home, long distance communication in the digital age, homophobia, and the psychological impact of disability.
After an opening scene in which we see a young Afghan boy involved in Bacha-Bazi – a form of child prostitution where young boys dress up as women and dance for their masters – we are whisked back to Hackney where young lovers Ken and Gemma are saying farewell before he returns to Afghanistan. The young Afghan boy from the opening moments, Babur, turns out to be friends with Ken and the intensity of that friendship eventually helps to drive Gemma into the arms of Ken’s best mate, Roly. This situation is complicated further when Roly returns home, having been horrifically injured in an explosion, and an unexpected pregnancy only compounds their troubles.
Interesting as this central love triangle is it’s just one plot strand of many, and it’s here that Hooper’s play comes unstuck. He doesn’t give himself enough time or room to explore every narrative road he starts down on and secondary characters, such as Nabil Elouahabi as Ken’s loyal friend Rashid, an Afghan shop owner living in London, are underdeveloped. There are times when the plotting feels muddled and rushed, particularly in the sub-plot surrounding Babar’s death. Although the chaos of war is successfully evoked, some of the action scenes are bitty and frantic, making for more confusion.
When the production slows down a bit, when it gives its characters room to breathe and communicate, there are some powerful and genuinely touching moments. Near the start, there’s a charming scene in which Ken and Babur record a video of themselves dancing together to send to Gemma; later the moment in which Ken and Roly are reunited, after the latter’s injury, is beautifully played. Both Chris Leask and Jordan Bright acquit themselves admirably in these moments, with Bright a double amputee and wheelchair basketball player, making a strong impression in his first professional production. Charlotte Beaumont is also convincing in her anguish as the girl who comes between them, and Farshid Rokey gives a poignant, if rather too brief, performance as the doomed Afghan boy Babur.
The loneliness and tedium of the life of a soldier is also convincingly depicted, but there are some real issues with audibility, particularly in the case of Chris Reilly’s gruff Scottish sergeant, which add to the sense of confusion. James Cotterill’s split level set, however, makes good use of the Crucible’s Studio, covering the space in military camouflage webbing to recreate the claustrophobia of the bunker and using screens above the stage to transport us to the streets of Hackney or a Birmingham military hospital.
There is some real narrative potential here, some fascinating issues being examined – particularly the complex relationship between the soldiers and the ‘batchas’ – but these are never fully explored; despite some powerful moments, in the end the clutter and cacophony are overwhelming and the play doesn’t have quite the emotional impact that its subject matter might suggest.