Close Quarters review – a brave battle of preconceptions

Crucible, Sheffield
A crack ensemble delivers Kate Bowen’s timely new play exploring identity and gender through female officers on their first tour of duty

Last month, the defence secretary announced that women already serving in the army would be able to transfer into infantry roles, something promised since 2016. Kate Bowen’s play (shaped in collaboration with director Kate Wasserberg and dramaturg Catriona Craig) addresses this new reality.

Set on a contested border in the near future, it follows three female recruits on their first tour of duty. Each scene focuses tightly on this very particular world of drill, banter, horseplay, guns, hierarchy, manoeuvres, encampment and night-time forest extraordinarily realised in the studio’s small space by Max Jones’s design, enhanced by Sarah Jane Shiels’s lighting and composer Dyfan Jones’s percussive soundscape. If Bowen’s subject matter is specific, her scope is broad. The issues at the core of the work explore not only what it is to be female but also the ways in which individual and group identities are constructed, threatened, maintained, how they can be challenged and reconstructed.

Adiza Shardow as Private Sarah Findlay.
Adiza Shardow as Private Sarah Findlay. Photograph: Sam Taylor

Privates Cormack (Chloe-Ann Tylor), Davies (Sophie Melville) and Findlay (Adiza Shardow) are well aware of others’ expectations that they will not be up to the psychological and physical demands of their job. Offstage, soldiers needle, jibe, bully: they try to cast the women as sex objects or nurturers. Onstage, a female intelligence officer (Kathryn O’Reilly) is more subtly undermining, doubting the capacity of the women’s bodies to endure the demands the infantry places on them. Others swither between positivity and prejudice: Lance Corporal Armstrong (Dylan Wood) stoutly defends the women, yet shares, if less crassly, their attackers’ preconceptions; the women themselves struggle to reconcile their personal qualities with their roles. Only Sergeant Adeyemi (Bradley Banton) unequivocally accepts the women as soldiers – a delicate suggestion that, as a black soldier, he relates to their situation.

Bowen’s intelligent, dramatic script is dynamically delivered by a crack theatre squad: set it in your sights. The high standard is all the more remarkable because the actor playing the key role of Findlay had to be replaced shortly after opening night. Adiza Shardow took on the part with just one day’s notice. It’s a mark of the company’s strengths – individual and group – that Shardow has been so seamlessly incorporated into such a tightly organised, physical staging, and a mark of the actor’s talent that the script in her hand becomes unnoticeable within minutes of the play’s opening, so engaged are we with her character. Here’s hoping that this Sheffield Theatres and Out of Joint co-production will be sent on a tour of duty around the rest of the country.

Close Quarters is at the Crucible, Sheffield, until 10 November

Contributor

Clare Brennan

The GuardianTramp

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