Boys from the black stuff

What lies beneath the regimented identity of these Scottish soldiers?

<strong>Black Watch</strong>

There are many splendid prospects for a summer's Friday night. Cooping yourself up in the Barbican with ten actors playing Scottish soldiers who are having a hard time in Iraq is not the first one that comes to mind. But the National Theatre of Scotland's Black Watch has become a phenomenon. Since its run on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe two years ago, when it was performed at a drill hall near the castle, audiences have seen it in a Pitlochry hydroelectricity lab, under the Brooklyn Bridge and at an old factory in Sydney. At last, it has made it to London, to the Barbican's comparatively ordinary but, for this production, transformed theatre. The woman who sat next to me had queued for a return ticket since 3pm. I doubt she left disappointed: its acting and its staging are exemplary.

The piece - I hesitate to call it a play - follows a platoon from the Scottish Black Watch regiment as it moves in October 2004 from the relative sanity of Basra to Camp Dogwood, the triangle of death that the Americans had given up on. Impersonations of the Scottish Nationalist leader, Alex Salmond, and the then defence secretary, Geoff Hoon, slugging it out on Today remind us how controversial it was. To add insult to injury, the regiment, whose history dates back to the 18th century, is on the point of being merged. Against these odds, the lads display selfless bravery and we find ourselves liking them quite a bit. When three are blown up in an ambush, it is agony.

It is clear that the writer Gregory Burke, who spent two months in a pub in Fife interviewing former members of the regiment, intended his focus to be the mentality of the men, not the politics of the war. Two years on from its premiere, with Iraq fading from the news, the piece seemed heavily agitprop to me. At first the confused motives of the invasion are subtly suggested. A soldier is reading The Seven Pillars of Wisdom but does not know what T E Lawrence was doing in the desert because the front half of his paperback is missing.

Yet the idea that the west is in Iraq under false pretences becomes increasingly explicit. A grunt tells a television reporter that this is not defending your country, but invading someone else's. In the end the most thoughtful of the men, Cammy (terrific Paul Rattray), resigns in disgust and his commanding officer (plummy Jack Fortune) concedes that the regiment's 200-year-long golden thread has been "fucked up" by the "greatest western foreign policy disaster ever".

Burke seeks to disarm us at the start by throwing out the thought that theatre always portrays soldiers as pitiful creatures good for nothing but the army. Yet I am afraid this is exactly how I felt about them on the way out. He has a good ear. The jargon of war is fascinating and the men's badinage has its funny side, but Burke does not succeed in making individuals out of these soldiers, whose assumptions, speech and ambitions seem almost identical.

Indeed, this may be his point - that the army delivers a regimented and regimental identity to people whose education, class and income do not afford them anything more differentiated. If you dared write about homosexuals or black people in this way, you'd be in trouble.

I also found myself increasingly worried by Burke's structure, which features him nervously interviewing the alpha males in their Guinness pub. There are plenty of jokes about pooftah thesps and which nancy actor should play which soldier. This is self-deprecation: an artist pretending to cower behind his inferiority to real men and reality. But, of course, Burke does not consider himself inferior, nor does he think theatre inferior to life. As the evening wears on, he and the director, John Tiffany, deploy an armoury of theatrical weaponry. Two soldiers emerge magically from beneath the felt of a pool table, which is later used to represent their "wagon". An interlude of mime - largely incomprehensible, I might say - accompanies the opening of letters from home. The men killed in the explosion fall to the stage in slow motion from strings. The play ends in a frenzy of parade-ground exercises and battlefield mime.

This is a powerful finale to a major theatrical event, but its very theatricality is problematic. I concluded it was there to distract us from realising that the writer had not found anything very interesting about the boys themselves.

Pick of the week

Under the Blue Sky
Duke of York’s Theatre, London WC2
Catherine Tate in a "love among the whiteboards" comedy. From 15 July.

Where Soldiers Sleep
Landguard Fort, Felixstowe, Suffolk
This site-specific piece should be atmospheric at least.

Hangover Square
Finborough Theatre, London SW10
Patrick Hamilton's Earls Court novel goes home for its stage adaptation.

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 14 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, ‘I’ll leave when I finish the job’

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The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless choice about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.