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Black Watch (Norfolk & Norwich Festival, UEA Sportspark)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
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Gregory Burke’s Black Watch isn’t easy viewing. The language in this tale of British soldiers during and after the Iraq war is naturalistic and appropriately robust. Its scenes are, by turns, funny and harrowing. Like the members of the eponymous regiment it portrays, Black Watch takes no prisoners and is obdurate in its shock and awe offensive on the senses of its audience.

But director John Tiffany and his 10-strong male cast present a solid and uncompromising piece of physically demanding theatre that will surely go down as one of the most polished and relevant works of our age.

Black Watch, one suggests, works best in unusual spaces, in this case staged traverse in the University of East Anglia's Haydn Morris Sports Hall, a return to the style of venue where it debuted in 2006 as part of the Edinburgh Festival. The acoustics in this particular venue are surprisingly effective – no mean feat for a space that usually houses basketball and 7-a-side soccer.

Despite brogues that are sometimes as thick as Clyde steel, the ear quickly becomes attuned and the urgency and conviction of delivery picks up the slack. Watching the young actors of Black Watch break seamlessly from their realistic portrayals into more representational and stylised sequences of movement and music does the heart proud, so flawless is Burke’s writing and Tiffany’s drum-tight direction.

As the soldiers of the Black Watch Regiment, Cameron Barnes, Ben Davies, Scott Fletcher, Andrew Fraser, Robert Jack, Stuart Martin, Stephen McCole,Adam McNamara, Richard Rankin, and Gavin Wright pitch impeccable performances, packed with simmering resentment, often reluctant camaraderie, unwavering loyalty and, of course, bravery in an extraordinary situation.

Colin Grenfell’s lighting design hasn’t changed much since I last saw Black Watch in 2010, and nor need it have. Sweeping spotlights bearing nationalistic emblems welcome the audience as does the ear-wrenching sound of the massed pipes. Black Watch is a story of a crucible of warfare in which men die in chaos, and it is only befitting that the setting for a play that represents those events is equally cacophonous to ear and eye.

The Norfolk & Norwich Festival has brought National Theatre of Scotland's Black Watch as its inaugural presentation for 2013. A powerful, controversial start to a promising month of events to mark its 189th year.

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