Aug 1st, 2017
Considering the phrase refers to the British soldiers who fought in the North African WW2 campaign, I half expected Desert Rats to spin a period yarn replete with perspiring gentleman soldiers and stiff-upper-lipped moxie. When I take my seat at the intimate Above The Arts theatre, I'm transported somewhere else entirely. With no proscenium arch in sight, the audience is thrust into a squalid motel room in Barstow, California. There certainly are no gentlemen, nor British accents in this arid, forgotten landscape...
Forming a meaty part of London-based theatre company Chaskis' summer festival Las Americas Above, the story follows brothers Frank and Jesse, two down-on-their luck petty criminals whose lives exemplify the stifling desert town that surrounds them. Finding little refuge from the heat in the airless room, they go over the details of a kidnapping they're about to spring into action, but the argumentative pair can't quite seem to last more than a minute before their bickering derails the conversation. Nate Rufus Edelman's slick dialogue and rhythmic, rapid-fire repartee shines when the brothers tear into each other, pitting streetwise hothead Frank against the naive and bumbling Jesse. Still, the promise of a hefty ransom pulls the action ever forward and it's not long before Valley girl victim Amber is in their clutches.
From the outset, a compelling mix of humour and tension simmers away, punctuated by questions from Jesse that could test the patience of a saint, Frank's bitingly-sarcastic replies and a whole lot of swearing thrown in for good measure. But it never felt gratuitous, the coarse language fitting seamlessly into the unforgiving terrain of their hopeless lives. The mastermind behind the operation, older brother Frank dominates their relationship and Jesse follows along for the most part. Orphaned, starved of emotional connection and dealt a terrible hand by life, it's easy to recognise the wounded innocent in Jesse, especially as he's played with such a poignant vulnerability (under a comic sheen of righteousness and bravado) by Rowan Polonski. With the arrival of Amber, the dynamic between the brothers starts to shift.
At first afraid and disoriented, the cheerleader slowly turns the tables when she realises Jesse's weakness and is allowed to use it to her advantage whenever Frank leaves the room. Played subtly and superbly by Josie Dunn, a master manipulator is revealed. And then, there's Frank, whose foreboding presence on stage becomes increasingly perturbing the more he exits and enters. It's easy to cast the brutish alpha male as the villain, yet Huw Parmenter's explosive performance is nuanced as well as visceral. Whilst Frank obviously bristles with rage, there are glimpses of a man seeking a better life for himself and his kid brother peppered throughout.
By the time Desert Rats reaches its thrilling conclusion, I find myself so engrossed that my heart rate only slows down till well after I leave the venue. Such a physical reaction is testimony to a brilliantly crafted and well paced production that manages to convey the complexities of the characters and plot in a mere 1 hour and 15 minutes, as well as suspend my disbelief. Succinct, bold and hugely entertaining, I can only hope that it one day returns to find a larger stage and audience.
Monday 1st August 2016
Above The Arts Theatre, London
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View our show pages for more information about Desert Rats, Above The Arts