Review – Black Watch, Barbican Theatre

Photo: Manuel Harlan
Black Watch was a hit at the fringe back in 2006. Since then it has toured the country and the world, telling the story of the ancient Scottish regiment’s experiences in Iraq. It is this work which has put the National Theatre of Scotland on the map and defined a new genre of physical theatre – including the hit of this year’s fringe Beautiful Burnout.

It is a work which has unified critical opinion, with five stars from the FT (“a blistering piece of physical theatre”), The Sunday Times (“a blast of fresh air”), The Daily Mail (“startling, noisy, upsetting, violently thrilling show”), The Herald (“astonishing artistic whirlwind”), The Scotsman (“flawless”), The Guardian (“storming, heart-stopping production”), The Evening Standard (“brimfull of theatricality, energy and style”) and Sunday Telegraph (“completely brilliant”) and The British Theatre Guide (“This should really be a 6* play”).

It returns to the Barbican – its original London home – this winter. Was it completely brilliant? Heart stopping? Six stars? Flawless? Unfortunately not.

I went in willing to love it. Ready and expecting to love it. I don’t know whether it was the expectation built up by half a decade of good review or the vague rusting that befall all great productions that run through too many casts and for too long (Cf War Horse). But there was some magic missing, some energy.

There’s no doubt it’s a superb production. Evocative, emotional, beautifully acted, wonderful music integrated perfectly with the text, never sentimental but always affecting, that superb mix of physicality with plot which seems to work for the National Theatre of Scotland and nobody else.

There’s no doubt indeed that this is a superb production, a must see (which is the highest acolade Sans Taste has) but it feels weakened by the weight of expectation around it. Find a time machine and see the first performance in 2006 in a drill hall in a obscure fringe venue in Edinburgh – now that would have been heart-stopping.