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Pugilist Specialist (London & tour)

By • West End
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San Francisco-based The Riot Group's latest offering is currently kicking butt at Soho Theatre before marching off on a national tour. If you're a fan of current and thought-provoking theatre, you'd be well advised to catch it.

Pugilist Specialist grabbed the attention of punters and critics alike at Edinburgh last year and it's easy to see why. It tells of a group of Marines - a communications officer, bomb specialist, sniper and the Colonel overseeing them on a covert mission. They are to assassinate a Middle Eastern leader - you don't get much more immediate than that.

But the unit itself is rife with tension. The sniper, Freud, is a fast-talking neanderthal, the comms man Studdard is passive to the point of automaton and the bomber, Stein, is a moral crusader - what's more problematic thought is she's a woman.

The actors attack the text with an incredible ferocity and all earn their place in the piece by bringing something unique to the big picture.

Stephanie Viola's Stein is wonderfully dignified and strong, never letting the men get away with anything. Drew Friedman's Studdard is detached, yet we get a real sense of concealed emotion bubbling just below the surface. Paul Schnabel similarly hits the right notes as Colonel Johns, charmingly manipulating them all in turn while Adriano Shaplin leers away as the macho Freud in a biting and mesmerising performance.

The simple design - two long benches on an empty stage with a repetitive sound-scape - acts as an empty canvas challenging the performers to fill it, and they do.

The Riot Group never underestimate their audience; on the contrary, this is a demanding piece. My only criticism is that it's almost too ambitious, covering so many complex and current themes: why people join up, women in the military, if soldiers can be moral, and the relationship between media and war, to name but a few.

It's refreshing to see a young company with so much to say, but frustrating too because every word counts and the pace at which they're fired at us means it's impossible not to miss some. There's only one solution - go and see it again.

- Hannah Kennedy


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