NOTE: The following review dates from November 2003 and this production's run at London's Hampstead Theatre. For current cast details, please check performance listings.
Scotsman Gregory Burke exploded onto the theatre scene two years ago with his incredibly hard-hitting debut, Gagarin Way, about a politically-inspired kidnapping at a factory in contemporary Fife.
The Straits is a gentler piece. And an earlier one, too; both in its setting (Gibraltar in 1982) and in its origination. In fact, though it's technically Burke's second stage play, the script, first written for radio, predates Gagarin Way. Perhaps that explains why, on first impressions, it doesn't seem as structurally sound or as intellectually imposing. And yet first impressions can be misleading.
In Rosia Bay, 16-year-old British 'brats' and best mates Doink and Jock (modelled on Burke himself who spent much of his youth in Gibraltar) aim to spend their final summer - before joining up with the Marines themselves - hunting octopus and sparring with the local 'spics'. But fresh forces arrivals Darren and his older sister Tracy test their friendship and rivalry in new ways.
On the surface, The Straits is a fairly straightforward coming-of-age tale, but its setting (in a military foreign outpost) and its timing (on the eve of the Falklands War and Gibraltar's own annual Anti-English Day) add to the mix intriguing questions about imperialism and, more generally, national as well as personal identity and responsibility.
Once again, Burke's work is directed by John Tiffany who gives it a slick and stylish presentation. Upon designer Neil Warmington's rusty and severely raked block of concrete - presumably as inhospitable as The Rock itself - the players ascend and descend, their scene transitions performed in minutely choreographed movements, like synchronised swimmers, only occasionally verging too far into MTV kitsch. Carmac O'Connor's constant background soundstream of tidal waves and sub-aquatic distortions add to the alien feel of a generation adrift.
And from the young four-strong cast, Tiffany and Burke could ask for little more. James Marchant bristles with restless energy and insecurity as Marine-in-the-making Doink, who believes fervently that wars are "what we (the British) do best. Don't matter who we fight either. Reckon we'll always be at war with someone, and we'll always win."
Stephen Wight's Jock is more reluctant to give way to xenophobic clannishness, while Calum Callaghan's is a study in the terror of conformity under peer pressure and Jenny Platt's Tracy provides both sexual carrot and moral stick with which she attempts, fruitlessly, to keep her boys in line.
Perhaps, after all, boys will be boys even if, as Tracy implores, "there are better things to be good at" than fighting.