Britannia Waves The Rules by Gareth Farr
The New Theatre
Reviewed by Nathan Lentern
Carl Jackson (Vincent Adriano) feels frustrated and angry. Unskilled and unemployed, he feels suffocated in his home town of Blackpool. Only a masochistic obsession with over exerting himself in long, gruelling runs and a secret passion for poetry give him any satisfaction. One day, to the dismay of both his father and a romantic admirer, Goldie (Jane Angharad) he is seduced by a slimy recruiting officer into enlisting in the army. Initially he responds well to his new environment, forming a deep yet complex bond with fellow recruit Bilko (Nik Rowe) while relishing the renewed sense of purpose in his life, but when he is sent to Afghanistan his romanticised notions of King and Country are turned on their axis. In Afghanistan he lurches from one traumatic experience to another. His guilt of his own actions and his fear for his own wellbeing and that of Bilko, all the while attempting to maintain a façade of bravery soon becomes too much and he enters into a devastating tailspin of mental health deterioration.
Deborah Mullah’s interpretation of Gareth Farr’s 2011 stage play treads a well-worn path exploring the horrors and questioning the sanity of war following in the footsteps of classics such as M*A*S*H and Gallipoli but with a contemporary flavour. The performance is raw and aggressive and Adriano’s Carlo is course. Tall and muscular, sporting a shaved head, plain t-shirts or army fatigues, when he’s not running laps of doing push-ups he strides forcefully with an imposing posture. His voice is rough and his tone bellicose. All in all he cuts a truly fierce and intimidating figure which in turn paves the way for some truly heart wrenching moments as his tender and vulnerable side is reluctantly dragged out.
Nick Rowe as Bilko provides the most developed and fascinating bond with Carlo. Rowe, like Adriano is tall and muscular but he appears less complex and less scrupulous. While Carlo presents a much more human figure, Bilko is a professional, a gun for hire, he does his duty, he doesn’t blink and he sleeps soundly at night. His apparent nonchalance and swagger is in sharp contrast to Carlo’s rampaging self-doubt. This contrast proves to be both a source of strength and irritation for Carlo as their relationship swings wildly from affectionate, to grudging, to homoerotic, to hostile to fraternal.
Jane Angharad’s Goldie and Alan Faulkner’s “Dad” are sympathetic and likeable. Trying to be supportive of Carlo while simultaneously forlorn at losing him to the army. Yet there simplicity is a source of frustration for Carlo. However well-intentioned they may be, their contentedness with Blackpool life renders them incapable of empathising with Carlo’s crippling ennui. Patrick Cullen as Lieutenant Thomson is cold and sinister, a caricature of the inhumane commanding officer.
He is probably the only character afforded no depth whatsoever and this weakens the play as a whole. A stronger critique of the war effort could have been made by a production that gave a more considered voice to the war’s proponents, instead the one sided perspective results in a transparently facile take of an ethically complex issue.
The set is appropriately dingy and unwelcoming, while a gigantic, grimy Union Jack is the backdrop. The impact is grim and sobering.
The idea of war experiences destroying young men with futures ahead of them is not particularly new, but Mullah’s Britannia Waves The Rules still feels fresh thanks to a solid cast and Farr’s gift for the poignant metaphor. Despite it’s one sided shortcomings, Carlo is a compelling figure and it’s easy to be touched and stirred by his struggles.
Nathan Lentern is a writer and performer.