Review – Black Watch, Barbican

Tuesday 24 June 2008

The Whingers were quite prepared for Black Watch to confront them with the brutalities and the horrors of war but nothing had prepared them for the atrocity they faced on entering the auditorium: the National Theatre of Scotland’s production has converted the Barbican’s traditional(-ish) theatre into a traverse stage. Yes, the proscenium was still there, but the Whingers were actually sitting behind it or under it. They were very confused.

Now, regular readers will know that the Whingers oft-bemoan the absence of a proscenium arch and have been known to take an instant dislike to anything using “alternative” forms of staging: in the round, the square, thrust and – worst of all – traverse. So this was not a good start to the evening.

But even worse, the sound of bagpipes could be heard. Now, they may be a great source of Her Majesty’s pleasure; apparently she likes to have them screeching beneath her bedroom window in lieu of an alarm clock. But then when was Brenda ever accused of displaying good taste (we reserve to revise this opinion come the announcement of the New Years Honours List)?

The bagpipes could probably waken even Andrew from one of his legendary stalls slumbers; to the Whingers it’s akin to dragging their fingernails (if they actually had any; Phil has bitten his down to the quick) down a blackboard. Could things get any worse?

On the plus side the running time was advertised as an interval-free 1 hour 50 minutes and if you wanted to leave you “must be escorted by an usher”, and may not be allowed readmission. How exciting! Andrew hadn’t been escorted anywhere in years.This was a thrilling amelioration for the Whingers and had they not been so thoroughly absorbed by the piece they would certainly have put the regulations to the test.

Gregory Burke‘s play – which received unanimous critical acclaim at the 2006 Edinburgh Festival and more 5 stars than an eighties R&B tribute band convention – is drawn from interviews with former soldiers from the Black Watch regiment about their experiences in Iraq. So this is one occasion where the Whingers won’t be accusing the writer of unrealistic dialogue.

Indeed, moving swiftly from pub pool room to battlefield the language is saltier than Phil’s infamous margarita parties. Poor Andrew nearly choked on his choc-ice when the c-word was first uttered, not having been this shocked since he saw Ruthie Henshall’s kazongas, but once he’d heard it two or three hundred times (these being Scottish soldiers) he became so innured that he’ll be adding it to his own whinging lexicon at the first available opportunity. It even has its own wikipedia entry, so that’s alright then.

The staging’s very impressive with enough flashing lights, explosions and loud music to keep a somnolent Andrew awake. The pool table from the opening scene becomes an integral part of the play doubling as a desert vehicle and undergoes an even more impressive transformation (which the Whingers won’t spoil) early in the play.

The multi-talented cast not only have to act, sing, march, dance, mime and perform physical theatre, one of them also has to play the bagpipes and presumably his understudy must, too. Yes, take note Sunday Times critic Christopher Hart, the Whingers may not like the skirl of pipes but the actor is playing them live, not miming, as Hart accused the excellent Julian Ovenden (the piano in his case) of doing in his review of Marguerite, (followed by an apology a week later). The Whingers of course made no such mistake in their Marguerite review. Next time check with the Whingers first, Mr Hart. Anyway, we don’t like to crow so we’ll say no more about it.

There’s a clever brief history of the Black Watch where a soldier’s costume is changed several times in a piece of physical theatre/dance which put Phil in mind of dance troupe DV8; in fact DV8 and their like seem to have quite a lot to answer for in Black Watch, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Bits of it even put Andrew in mind of an Agnes de Mille dream ballet sequence.

There was almost one outstanding highlight to the evening when Phil was on the point of speed-dialling Claims Direct after his own theatrical first – being hit by a prop. But fortunately (or unfortunately depending on your point of view) he emerged physically unscathed; but possibly even more enfeebled mentally.

There was also an odd and half-remembered whiff to the evening – something the Whingers vaguely recognised but couldn’t quite put their tremulous finger on. They decided in the wine bar afterwards that it must have been testosterone.

As they mulled their experiences over with Tim (who doesn’t drink but was very patient) and Helen (who quite assuredly does) they realised they couldn’t quite pin down their mood. Everything in it was done very well, but it somehow it seemed to add up to slightly less than the sum of its parts.

The only explanation for the almost universal five-star raves at Edinburgh seemed to be one of context. If you had seen 87 rubbish shows in two days beforehand Black Watch would indeed seem like a beacon of quality theatre. But if on the other hand you had recently seen The Chalk Garden you might – quite counter-intuitively we admit – think that Black Watch was a bit, well, done-before.

Ultimately the Whingers weren’t even sure what the point of Black Watch was. To show the horrors of war, to expose it’s awfulness? War is bad but our lads are brave and they are real people and Tony Blair was a bastard?

Or maybe it was simply to show that traverse staging can work sucessfully and here the Whingers agree that it was the best use of it they’d seen, possibly even topping Ben Yeo’s Nakamitsu.

Perhaps a question posed by one of the soldiers was the key to it: “Do actors get a lot of fanny?” If you’re a proud posessor of an equity card please pass on your cogitations to the Whingers.


  • Black Watch may claim it’s “a visceral, complex and urgent piece of theatre”, but one of the first things the programme urgently tells you about the production reads: “We would like to remind you that we have a range of quality ice creams, chocolate and other confectionery available for purchase in the foyer.” Visceral indeed.
  • Black Watch has successfully toured the world since its Edinburgh debut but has struggled to find a suitable London home, enjoyably turning down an invitation from Nicholas Hytner, the artistic director of the National Theatre, who said Black Watch had made him “respectful, admiring and envious”. Splendid.


19 Responses to “Review – Black Watch, Barbican”

  1. jmc Says:

    I’m seeing this on Saturday – you sound as if you think it’s at least all right… The Barbican are curiously keen to sell their ice-cream. When I booked my ticket online, I had to remove the default advance purchase of a tub of ice-cream from my “shopping basket”. Has someone sold them a job lot?

  2. “If you had seen 87 rubbish shows in two days beforehand Black Watch would indeed seem like a beacon of quality theatre” – This hypothesis falls down on the fact that, as a Traverse presentation, Black Watch was one of the first shows that critics saw that Edinburgh. Consequently, rather than being a relief from foregoing stuff, it served to set the standard which the rest of that season’s offerings failed to match.

    You were saying something about “check with the Whingers first”…?

  3. betsy Says:

    soldier porn for liberals

  4. @ jmc – that is fantastic news! Did you get a choice of flavour? Please reveal more about this new trend.

    @ Ian – well, you explain it then! It’s very good, but (at the Barbican anyway) it’s four stars, not five.

    And, by the way, it is only necessary to check with the Whingers regarding the miming or otherwise of musical instruments. Nothing else. What kind of monstrous egomaniacs do you take us for?

  5. jmc Says:

    @ Betsy “soldier porn for liberals” – which political demographic is soldier porn like Army Fuckers aimed at?

    @ Andrew – I think that it was a specific variety of ice cream that appeared in my “shopping basket” – one of those fancy flavours that you don’t get from the Ice Cream Van, with “real cream”. Can’t remember which, but although I am not adverse to ice cream*, I don’t know a week in advance whether I’ll feel like eating a tub or not.

    *or soldier porn for that matter…

  6. Andrew: Me, I only gave it four stars in Edinburgh. It lost one from me for being so bloody Frantic Assembly in the Frantic Assembly sections.

  7. Stephen Henson Says:

    Well everyone.

    I’ve now seen it 3 times over the last two years and simply don’t think there are enough stars to give it. It is at once brutal and beautiful, a piece that encompasses music and movement in a way that I don’t think could be bettered, a technical triumph as well, all credit to the stage crew.
    The only down side for me was that the Fife accent has been toned down a bit so that you Southerners can understand all the dialogue, it reduces some of the more rapid fire passages to a more sedate level.

    So whinge on but me? I’m not for whinging.

  8. I have to say that, on second viewing, I think I’d up my own star rating to five. Not only did the Frantic sequences grate less, but… OK, this is a highly personal response… When I first saw the piece, during the final sequence I couldn’t help but hear the voice of my late father (who, as a Chindit, served alongside the Black Watch in Burma): during my childhood, whenever we watched the TV coverage of the Edinburgh Tattoo or the like, he’d be scathing about the standard of drill even among supposedly showcase companies. Tonight, Tiffany’s company shut my dad up. That’s praise.

  9. I’m a bit worried that we’re all in danger of agreeing with each other. Yes, it was very, very good.

  10. ChrisWilkinson Says:

    I am seeing this on saturday and as you should be able to read in my blog on it tommorrow, I am both staggeringly excited about seeing it again, and very nervous…

  11. johnnie tweed Says:

    Betsy needs tae get tae bed earlier and keep her haunds ootside da bedclaithes.

  12. Helen Smith Says:

    Nothing wrong with soldier porn, Betsy. After the success of Black Watch I’m looking forward to others in the series including one about the fire brigade (Blue Watch) coast guards (Coast Watch) and a verbatim theatre version of Bill Oddie’s recent rique remarks about stag beetles (Spring Watch).

  13. Chris Wilkinson Says:

    “After the success of Black Watch I’m looking forward to others in the series including one about the fire brigade (Blue Watch) coast guards (Coast Watch) and a verbatim theatre version of Bill Oddie’s recent rique remarks about stag beetles (Spring Watch).”


  14. Pol Says:

    Saw this a few months ago at the Lowry, and I have never seen anything better. Ever. 20 years of theatre going blown away by this preoduction. If I could see it again tomorrow I would have no hesitation.

  15. Milly Says:

    I don’t go for ranking, but this gets to be part of any discussion of what’s the best thing I’ve ever seen in a theatre (for context, contextualisation fans, so does the Donmar Merrily We Roll Along of a few years ago, the National’s Coast of Utopia in a day and a few others I am sure that for weird reasons do not leap to my instant mind). As for what it’s about: it was about was the ludicrously important subject of what the men are like who fight our wars. Modern Western Europe is one of the most profoundly demilitarised societies in history, we have no comprehension of the reality of fighting, we are in denial about the necessity of force in the global context, we don’t know who fights for us and we don’t respect them. I do not worship the military, and I think the American soldier-worship is at least as psychically damaged a response to warfare as is prevalent among knee-jerk Anti-American European liberals (I am a European liberal), but it is a vital subject, and to have it treated in this thrilling, lyrical and unjudgmental way was beautiful, civilised and deeply profound.

  16. Sue Says:

    I would just like to point out that the marvelous ice cream cannot, after all that fuss, be taken into the theatre!

    I thought it was a fantastic show, by the way.

  17. Paul Says:

    Can we get beyond the staging (which is marvellous) and address the fact that the play is intellectually shallow and naive? Once one gets beyond dancing and pool tables, is anything remotely insightful being said or explored here? No. Not a single profound word, not a single new view of war. The song “Shipbuilding” is far more profound in just 3 mins about the reasons why teenagers sign up than anything written here. Nothing new, nothing deep – a great deal of sound and fury, signifying…nothing.

  18. Captain Haddock Says:

    I saw it yesterday and it was probabaly the best thing I’ve seen this year.

    Interestingly, although sold out, there was an empty seat next to me. In the seat next to that, though, was sat AA Gill, who may have just bought an extra ticket to seat his ego.

    I also noticed Ian McKellen in the audience, with a young gentleman, who I presume was his nephew.

    I did not have an ice cream.

  19. Stephen Henson Says:

    Hello again

    It’s still brilliant.
    To be released in the autumn by the BBC, a recording they made when it was performed in Dingwall (look it up) so a few words in that you west enders won’t initially understand.


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