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Pugilist Specialist

Adriano Shaplin
The Riot Group
Soho Theatre
(2004)

The Riot Group almost cleaned up all of the awards going in Edinburgh last year. They even got the big one, The First of the Firsts, for this political satire.

It is pleasing to report that six months later, the play seems sharper than ever, as it commences a lengthy British tour before opening off-Broadway in September.

Pugilist Specialist is Dr Strangelove for the 21st Century. Four U.S. marines are employed on a mission to assassinate "The Bearded Lady". Last summer this seemed to be a thinly disguised Osama Bin Laden, now a moustache makes it Saddam Hussein.

The four are an interesting mix, and with the three men all now shaven-headed there is an extra level of threat, enhanced by the soundtrack.

Stein, the "military spokesmodel" played by Stephanie Viola is used to being the marine's happy token female and public face, a role that she both loves and hates.

She constantly spars with author Adriano Shaplin's comic Freudian Freud. They also get together to gang up on Drew Friedman as the unfeeling historian, Studdart. Ageism rears its ugly head in the person of Colonel Johns, Paul Schnabel.

The most sinister character is unseen. This is the military machine, led one presumes by the U.S. president. Strings are pulled and the denouement is almost worthy of Greek tragedy.

Pugilist Specialist is written in a kind of portentous, poetic language with almost every sentence filled with thought-provoking meaning. The Riot Group, basically the actors, direct tautly and have reached a perfect pace that demands audience concentration, which is richly rewarded.

The play puts a sharp and often witty focus on the spin business, where PR is more important than action, and the media. Shaplin specialises in raising the language of euphemism to a high art.

Pugilist Specialist is a coruscating attack on Governments that ruthlessly pursue political aims regardless of human cost. After only an hour, it is possible to feel like an expert on political high jinks but also human motivations under pressure.

This multi-award winning play is something special and a visit is strongly recommended.

Pete Wood took a less enthusiastic view of the play when it visited Bristol

Reviewer: Philip Fisher