Yorkshire Times
Weekend Edition
Mike Tilling
Arts Correspondent
8:27 AM 13th April 2024

Hannah: The Soldier Diary

Tucked away in the vast complex that is the Scarborough Spa is a small theatre that is usually used for more intimate shows. Fascinating Aida played here a few weeks ago, and I seem to remember Suggs performing his one-man show about his years with Madness.

Imagine my surprise, then, to be propelled seamlessly through scenes using a hairdressing salon, a beach, a bedroom, Harrogate Railway Station, and a seafront esplanade as locations. It is a big map that writer/producer Steve Wallis has sketched, but female protagonist Hannah (Zoe Wright) inhabits every corner of it. I calculate that she was off-stage for only four minutes throughout the evening.

As is customary these days, the cast moves the props that signal a change of scene.

in full view of the audience. No fourth wall here, but more of that later.

The plot is not quite as old as they come, but girl meets boy; girl loses boy; girl gets boy back again has a certain familiarity to it. But an overused storyline is not the issue; what matters is how it is brought to life.

The year is 2012, and Hannah is a hairdresser waiting for her favourite customer, Mrs M (Linda Newport). Mrs M plays the role of unrepentant cougar to the max, but she is also the biggest tipper, hence her popularity.

With a set list that includes titles like Butterflies, Fairground and Call Me I wondered at first if we were in for a jukebox musical, but no, each song is tailored to the narrative and the mood by Nik Martin (music) and Steve Wallis (lyrics). The audience did not leave the auditorium humming any of the tunes, but each one dovetailed with the action.

Wright sings splendidly, commanding the stage. She is the one who is licensed to break the fourth wall and address the audience directly. These asides only occur occasionally and do not break the flow of the narrative. And then she encounters Jack. Her emotions upon meeting her soldier are expressed through songs like Butterflies (a ‘love at first sight’ moment), Free Fall, and Anxiety.

And no wonder. Stephen Alexander, as Jack, in his soldier’s uniform, looks every inch like the leading man: tall, athletic, and square-jawed. Later, we learn that he has more than just good looks; he has a surprising way with rap and even break dancing. He rapidly becomes devoted to Hannah, but at the end of their four-week affair, he is scheduled for a tour of duty in Afghanistan because this is 2012 and the British Army has a commitment in Helmand.

All the tropes that would be familiar to previous generations are then employed: goodbyes at the train station; anxious waiting for messages; self-doubt; discovery of a pregnancy; and, against expectations, support from family and friends.

Ensemble dancing and other support are precise and athletic. There is one particularly poignant scene where Hannah, feeling miserable and living with doubts, reflects on her predicament while a single dancer (Chiela Robertson) expresses her vulnerability. Perhaps this is the pinnacle of choreographer Julie Hatton’s work, which has been excellent throughout.

And then Jack’s messages stop.

There are some minor niggles: attempting to create tension through social class differences between Hannah and Jack’s family does not work since we know nothing of Hannah’s background and Jack’s family have no discernible middle class aspirations; none of the songs send you whistling into the night; the music is taped, not played live.

This is a very young cast, and director Darren Johnson wisely allows their characteristic enthusiasm to shine through. Both leads have charisma (i.e., your eye does not wander when they are on stage), and this is particularly important when sets are merely indicated by minimal props.

Hannah: The Soldier Diary is a lively and entertaining evening in the theatre. The show deserves to go on tour and bring its energy to a wider audience.

Hannah – The Soldier DiarySpa Theatre