D C Moore
Royal Court Theatre Upstairs
If only for its unbelievable authenticity, The Empire could be compared to a reality TV show. However, even Channel 4 has not thought of filming Big Brother in Afghanistan - yet.
Before the cast even arrive, you cannot fail to admire Bob Bailey's set. It recreates a bullet-scarred room in a war zone, with a large chunk of the ceiling missing and the floor made up of rubble and empty cartridge cases.
In imagined desert heat, we spend 90 minutes in the company of a random quartet. For those who believe that the British soldier is the salt of the earth, a meeting with Joe Armstrong's utterly believable Gary could prove shocking. He is bigoted, self-important and crude beyond belief, with a streak of inherent cruelty that should surely be the stock in trade of Terry Taliban rather than Tommy Atkins.
On the day depicted through 90 gruelling minutes, Gary witnesses the death of his closest friend, possibly at the hands of Zia, a handcuffed Muslim with a broken leg, played by Nav Sidhu.
Confounding even more expectations, Zia does not need the humane, if spaced out, interpreter "Paddy" (Josef Altin) as, rather than Kabul, his home is in Newham.
Zia's reasons for being in a war zone form the main plot, as he tries to persuade the disbelieving and far from bright Gary that a combination of family holiday in Lahore and boredom-driven search for a little entertainment have led him to this tiny room.
The referee in what is rather an unfair contest is "Rupert", Rufus Wright in the role of a Public School-educated army captain caught in the verbal crossfire.
As in real life, there is a strange mixture of the mundane, discussions about East London and football, and the much more serious, which in this life and death context provides enough drama for any viewer, even diehard fans of Big Brother.
D C Moore has written an intense but truthful drama that is not always pleasant to watch but really could have been a verbatim play, had the army allowed a playwright to join their jaunt into the hellish country that Afghanistan has become.
The direction by Mike Bradwell, making a welcome return to the Royal Court, is pitch perfect and he is helped no end by outstanding performances from every one of the main actors.
The Empire is a really special piece of theatre that will give viewers more of an insight into life on the front line in Afghanistan than any number of TV dramas.
It really deserves to sell out but fortunately for those who may struggle to get tickets, after Sloane Square, it travels to the Drum in Plymouth and then the Court's second home in the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre from the beginning of June.
Playing until 1 May
Reviewer: Philip Fisher