You can’t imagine Little Mix doing something like this. They might be the biggest UK girl band of the moment, but travelling to Afghanistan to perform a charity gig for the troops? You might get a charity single if you’re lucky.
Yet that’s exactly what The Sweethearts do in this new play from Sarah Page. The fictional three-piece group are reluctantly sent not only to entertain serving British soldiers and provide some light relief, but also in a desperate attempt to promote their new album. Simon Cowell would be proud.
Really, though, Page’s play is less a comment on plastic, manufactured celebrity, but an exploration of the nature of heroism. By juxtaposing the glamorous world of pop with the danger of war, she highlights a disconnect between image and reality. The soldiers tell tales of bravery, rescue and daring, of risking death to save others. Yet beneath their machismo they are human: horny lads brimming with banter. The bitchy divas, obsessed with their own image, are quickly brought down to earth.
There’s a sense of equal fascination here. The soldiers rely on the girls for escapism, for a reminder of home. And when the singers reveal their own hardships – lack of privacy, drug abuse, shackled to the sexist whims of the industry – they uncover their own brand of heroic bravery. In their fans, they see people they can relate to, who in turn see the real women behind the stage names. Page humanises both sides, war bringing them together in a neutral middle ground. Edward Lewis’ atmospheric sound design, the noise of battle is never far away, just outside the claustrophobic confines of Alex Marker’s set.
Gradually, Page peels back the layers of these characters, and in director Daniel Burgess’ production the drama is intense, gripping and funny, the jokes coming thick and fast. Things take a much darker turn as the play progresses though, a competitive streak bubbles from beneath the surface as both parties try to impress each other. The preconceptions of both sides are shattered as battle commences.
The Sweethearts is a powerful drama with a powerful message, her characters contrasting and layered, her dialogue distinctive. The performances of the cast are all superb but Stevie Raine’s Captain Nicholls proves to be an unexpected catalyst, quietly frightening as much as he inspires his fellow soldiers. Individually, both the soldiers and girls overcome their stereotypes, with Sophie Stevens in particular showing emotional strength as lead singer Coco.
It’s Laura Hanna’s Corporal Taylor who emerges as the most interesting character, however. As a woman in the military, she operates in shades of grey, straddling both worlds. She’s also an easy character for the audience to relate to, acting as a foil to soldiers and singers both with her dry humour. She is, perhaps, the most human character of all. Yet when she too succumbs to the violence of the play’s dramatic climax, we know that all hope is lost.