"It started off fine, then went down the usual cliché route." Rarely has a playwright unwittingly penned such an accurate description of their own show. The line's delivered by a policeman, complaining about how his profession is portrayed on TV; what Stand By gives us is a little different from that standard fare, but it's hard to claim that it's better.
The policeman's one of four officers who’ve been ordered to wait – "stand by" – near the scene of a hostage-taking. As they pass the time inside their police van, we get to know their oh-so-familiar characters: there's the Cheeky One, The Troubled One, The One Whose Wife Keeps Calling Him and, of course, The Woman, who tuts at blokeish excesses but is one of the lads deep down.
The banter has the ring of authenticity to it, and some in the audience around me seemed to recognise parallels with their own lives or careers. Far too much of the dialogue, however, is an exercise in box-ticking, raising topic after topic in a cynical-seeming attempt to make this an issue-driven play. One policeman's wife has an eating disorder; potentially a worthy sub-plot, except that it's mentioned precisely once and then never referred to again. Another officer's mother is having a mastectomy. There's a fleeting reference to a transgender character, who exists only to illustrate some Life On Mars attitudes from those upstairs. If I were transgender, I don't think I'd appreciate having my experiences reduced to a predictable 30-second soundbite, and then quietly shuffled away.
Some bits simply don't make sense. The crew are shocked – shocked! – that one of their number isn't wearing his stab vest, and suddenly launch into an angry outburst at his foolishness… despite the fact that he’s been sitting there, obviously stab-vest-less, for the whole of the time up to then. Other passages take unsubtle exposition to a whole new level: "You're more interested in overtime than getting justice!" "He needs to get a grip – twenty-first century policing!" "I just wanted to make a difference to people's lives!" And so forth.
The script does do a good job of establishing the claustrophobic boredom of the scenario, but if you don’t guess that the tension will eventually bubble over then you've never seen a play in your life. It's at this point that the direction takes a bizarre turn, completely forgetting that the four officers are meant to be hunkered down inside a riot van. Spreading the van's "seats" out across the stage is a smart move – it would be a shame to let literalism obstruct the audience's sightlines – but leaping up for some mano-a-mano fisticuffs stretches the point way too far, especially since being cooped up in a small space is what's led to those fisticuffs in the first place.
The experience is redeemed, just a little bit, by a simple yet highly effective gimmick: each audience member is issued with an earpiece, through which we occasionally hear radio chatter or reports from the world outside the van. This does add a lot to the sense of isolation – the knowledge that there's a developing story taking place elsewhere – and it works well as a way of introducing extra characters, who seem no less fully realised for the fact that we only hear them. The voice actors deserve considerable credit; one of them, reporting with shocked hollowness from the scene of a road accident, delivered the emotional highlight of the play.
The plot builds credibly enough towards a life-or-death climax, but then overcooks it with a preposterous act of insubordination which would surely see our heroes on a charge. Ignoring orders from clueless superiors: we're back to those clichés again. The serious points about policing policy get lost among the nonsense, and in the end, Stand By just doesn't deliver.