The Observatory

Thu 4th – Sun 28th August 2011

reviews

Ellen Marsh

at 15:48 on 14th Aug 2011

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The Observatory is set in an unidentified conflict zone, the sand that pours onstage in the opening making obvious and direct reference to Afghanistan and Iraq. It begins with a soldier, Finch, shooting dead a man at a checkpoint, essentially as a result of the language barrier between them – the dramatisation of this requires two actors to be bilingual, something they handle brilliantly. The scene is disturbing, principally because it is so easy to believe. Set in this context, the play asks questions about the possibility of justice and the feasibility of right and wrong in war.

All members of the company remain on stage throughout, watching the action. This highlights the idea of multiple perspectives, and the potential for the same actions to be interpreted differently by any number of witnesses. Just as the different characters observe and evaluate the actions of others in a number of ways, so we are invited to as the audience.

The Observatory follows the investigation of Finch’s act, and flashbacks explain the background of the characters and what brought them to this situation. The use of flashback is not immediately clear, making the play initially confusing to follow. These flashbacks, alongside reported histories of the characters, allow the audience to see and understand the different perspectives on the central investigation of Finch. The lack of clear right and wrong is what makes this piece so strong. The audience is invited to question everything they see, and the deliberate lack of resolution demonstrates that the production believes that its subject matter is an important point of debate.

The cast is uniformly strong, well-rehearsed and their timing is spot on. This allows the audience to focus entirely on the subject matter – and as the cast find it easy to ignore the sound bleeding through from the venue next door, so too do the audience. Particular mention must go to the actors playing Finch and Short; both characters suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but are played without the usual clichés, and are intriguing rather than alienating. These strong performances kept me engaged throughout, and made it possible to sympathise with and understand various characters who each represent very different points of view.

There is so much to say about the ideas brought up and explored in this production, that it would be easier (and quicker!) for you to go and see it for yourselves. The Observatory is thought-provoking in the best sense of the phrase, and in thinking over it in order to write this review I find more and more to consider. I recommend this for anyone interested in seeing a well-written and superbly acted play dealing with challenging and topical issues.

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Bethany Knibb

at 10:38 on 17th Aug 2011

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“The Observatory” is a bold piece of new writing by Daniel Foxsmith. Following the military investigation into the death of a civilian in a war zone, it addresses the psychological effects of being directly involved in conflict, something little-explored publicly but nevertheless extremely significant.

Psychological disorders are still a taboo subject and particularly so within an army environment, where it is so important to maintain a constant level of control and command. Snuff Box Theatre approaches this head on and, with just a bit of sand and a table, have created something skilful and thought provoking.

The play jumps around in time – seemingly to allow the audience to connect with the main character by highlighting his life at home and also the vividness of his war memories. It seems obvious that traumatic experiences in a war zone would trouble an individual, but at what point does it render a soldier unfit for another round of service? Whose responsibility is it to make that decision?

The narrator encourages the audience to think about these things, about intellect and skin colour, about soldiers being “boys dressed as men”. This makes “The Observatory” quite heavy, but it is done so well that it does not feel as dense as it is. The actors are good, without exception, though the obligatory army shouting and swearing has undoubtedly lost some of its vigour over the last two weeks of performances. In my view, the comic touches are lost amongst the seriousness of the plot but it is of little matter.

I was particularly impressed by the transitions between scenes – in a venue like The Underbelly, it would be easy to lose, during the scene changes, the atmosphere the actors take so much trouble to create, but clever military songs and a stamp/clap preserves the sharp, aggressive character of the play.

This production is slick and stimulating – indicative of a deeper level of organisation and design, which is refreshing to see in a new student play.

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