York Theatre Royal Studio and touring
Chris O'Connell sets his play ZERO twenty years ahead in the bleak future where wealthy capitalist societies are willing to go to any lengths to protect their coveted lives. Two new army recruits arrive at Camp Zero, a torture camp where the inmates are raped, mutilated and murdered, all in the name of freedom. As translator Alex (Stephen Hudson) confronts the awful picture in front of him he feels compelled to write a book describing the atrocities he witnesses. However, in a world so divided by those who have and have not, O'Connell asks if those in power will even be interested.
Using a serious of flashbacks and forwards we begin to see the unfolding relationship between Alex and Tom, an enthusiastic new squaddie, fantastically played by Daniel Hoffman-Gill. When Tom volunteers to take part in a demonstration of the methods used by the camp he finds that his previously pragmatic values are changed by personal experience of the cruelty. Supporting his superior Alex in his bid to write the book and change the world, the two escape the camp and finally find that they have become the hunted.
In Laura McEwen's gritty set, prisoner Demisse (Damien Lynch) suffers the tortures of his captives, caged, drugged and hanging from the bars. In a blisteringly hot continent with the sand coloured walls of the prison in the background, the prisoners are delivered a packaged and designed 'box of rain'. Demisse wonders ironically if he will be charged for it in the future - if, indeed, he ever leaves the prison camp. Meanwhile the pregnant Syrah (Kate Ambler) executes the methods to extract the information from him, whilst believing that she is protecting her unborn child's future. Overseeing this all is the combative Major Chaudry (Adeel Akhtar) who threatens Alex's future at the same time as asking the audience, who witness the demonstration of the camp's tactics, to fill out the customer satisfaction cards under our seats.
With O'Connell's hard hitting writing maintaining touches of ironic, dark humour throughout and Daniel Hoffman-Gill's winning performance, the individual humanity of Tom and Alex remains. However the 95 minute long performance without an interval loses a great deal of impact due to its sheer relentlessness. O'Connell makes attempts towards explaining away the actions of the camp's controllers but inevitably the piece deals with a foregone conclusion before it has begun: horrific acts of torture can never be condoned by any humanitarian society. If O'Connell writes this as a warning of the future, he gives little hint of either how his futuristic society got to this point, nor how they could have prevented it.
While ZERO offers a potentially powerful punch it struggles to find either a unique voice or an exceptional stand point. And once all of its many punches have been thrown the audience leave rather more punch drunk than ready to, as it were, 'fight the good fight'. Notwithstanding, this is a confidently directed and well acted production, with writing in progress.
Reviewer: Cecily Boys