Pugilist Specialist

Adriano Shaplin
The Riot Group
The Tobacco Factory, Bristol
(2004)

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If The Pugilist Specialist were a boxer it would be Chris Eubank rather than Mohammed Ali. For many at the Edinburgh Festival last year, the play floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee. But it didn't really land a glove on me.

You couldn't accuse the author Adriano Shaplin, of under-ambition. It's an immensely confident and well-crafted piece of writing and, in its subject matter - US military action in the Middle East - it could scarcely be more timely.

But I couldn't share the enthusiasm of those critics who have hyperbolically, it seems to me, hailed Shaplin as destined to join Arthur Miller and David Mamet "in the pantheon of great modern American dramatists. As ol' Marlon so eloquently put it in Kazan's film A Streetcar Named Desire, "I say huh".

The play is short, sharp and bristling with snappy dialogue. It invites epithets like this. "Whiplash writing", "bayonet-sharp dialogue", "razor-sharp style" and "like an ambush" are others which critics have been only too happy to supply. "Like a Schwarzenegger Woody Allen" opined another. In truth, the obvious comparison is with Tarantino whose knowing, brutal irony Shaplin shares.

But Tarantino, at his best, had a defter touch and knew when to let up. Shaplin can't leave off hitting us with a torrent of words. He is, in the famous description of one windy MP, "inebriated with the exuberance of his own verbosity". And it makes for very a very static drama. Sometimes, contrary to Winston Churchill's view, what is needed is less jaw, jaw and more war, war.

The piece is performed by San Francisco-based quartet The Riot Group for whom Shaplin both writes and acts. The action opens on the eve of a covert assassination mission in an unspecified Middle Eastern country. The four marines are to be flown in, kill 'Big Stach', aka 'The Bearded Lady', blow up his headquarters and fly out. The action takes place variously in a barracks, airplane and desert suggested by use of the only props, two wooden benches.

But could there be more to the mission than Colonel Johns is letting on. As Lieutenant Stein says: if the operation is such an "international blockbuster", why are they operating under cover of the night? Why drop "care packages" containing candy bars, condoms, a calculator and agit-prop propaganda? Why is Stein, an explosives expert, involved anyway, given her part in a previous disastrous mission? Is it because as a woman she is important for PR purposes or is there some more sinister reason behind her involvement?

The actors acquit themselves well though I would demur from going as far as one critic who described the piece as "dazzlingly acted". Best is Lieutenant Freud, played Shaplin himself, who could be out of a Tarantino film. Taunting Lieutenant Studdard to take part in a race to see who can eat 15 hot dogs first, he expounds, "This hot dog will fit in your throat and slide out your ass. It is the distillation of some swine's hopes and dream, the reordered flesh of a once noisy creature. Race me with hot dogs. I promise: you'll shit a sculpture too radiant for words, sign the canvas and have a glass of wine."

Philip Fisher reviewed "Pugilist Specialist" at London's Soho Theatre

Reviewer: Pete Wood