Stand By

Exeunt Magazine / Crystal Bennes

Edinburgh in August is a fairly tribal place. Festival and Fringe casts and crews arrive from all over the world. Then there are the journalists and bloggers. Culture vultures, eager to discover the next big thing. Tourists. Lots and lots of tourists. All of which is to say that if you’ve come to town for culture, it’s easy to forget about, or simply ignore, that other bastion of the August calendar: the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo.

Theatrical arts and the military are not natural bedfellows, which is why this year’s venue partnership between Summerhall and a Royal Regiment of Scotland reservists’ centre – Army @ Summerhall – raised a few eyebrows when first announced. Among other works, the programme includes Rosie Kay’s 5 Soldiers and Lesley Wilson’s Wired, and everything on the bill is thematically linked to the armed forces. Tickets are taken by army officers. Pre-show drinks are served in the mess hall.

Although not an area of interest towards which I naturally gravitate, I wanted to give at least one performance in the venue a chance. In the end, I decided on Stand By, a new work written by former Tayside Force police officer, Adam McNamara. Twenty-first century Britain has a fraught, complicated relationship with its police – by turns reviled, tolerated, occasionally even beloved (depending, it sometimes seems, on the latest social-media meme). I was intrigued by Stand By’s promise of a ‘behind-the-uniform’ take on policing from a former-officer turned actor.

McNamara’s play takes us inside a riot van with four officers as they pass the time, awaiting resolution of an incident where a man has threatened to kill his young son and himself with a samurai sword. A negotiator has been sent in to talk the man down. The officers must wait to find out whether force is needed to resolve the situation. While they wait they talk. Through the banter, often lewd, frequently side-splittingly funny, we learn that being an officer isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The hours are terrible, the paperwork oppressive and the job conditions destructive to personal relationships. If we take McNamara’s depiction as accurate, policing is an often deeply-boring, occasionally dangerous, thankless job.

Writer McNamara, who also plays one of the officers, has a finely-tuned ear for a cracking bit dialogue. Dialogue that is smart, sharp and funny, but also an excellent vehicle for sketching out believable and sympathetic, if flawed, characters. You feel you know these characters and you care about what happens to them, which is as much as testament to the performances of McNamara and actors Laurie Scott, Andy Clark and Jamie Marie Leary, as it is to the writing and directing.

Like a multitude of Fringe shows this year, Stand By also incorporates a surprising bit of technical wizardry. Upon entering the theatre, each member of the audience is given an earpiece. This earpiece transmits radio messages from the central dispatch office to the four officers in the back of the van. I was initially concerned that the earpiece might serve to isolate the audience members from each other, but the technology worked flawlessly to connect the audience to the police officers, but also, rather unexpectedly, to each other.

As the house lights came up following the performance, the man sat next to me removed his earpiece and said aloud, to no one in particular, ‘Well, that was fantastic. What a surprise.’ My thoughts precisely.