It’s an arresting premise for a play: four police officers are on standby in a riot van, waiting to see if they will have to storm a property. “The call is that they’ve attended a male who has a samurai sword and his baby in the flat, and he’s threatening to do harm to the baby and himself,” explains Adam McNamara, a former cop and the writer behind Stand By. With the negotiating team trying to make contact via phone calls and through the letterbox, this is what McNamara calls a “pressure-cooker type event” for the officers: “There’s all this stuff going on outside, and they’re sitting in a van, unable to do anything about it.” It’s here that the wordplay in the play’s title resonates; the officers are both on ‘standby’, in a state of readiness for duty and, in a sense, standing by while the action unfolds elsewhere.
“The audience are going to be hearing elements of the story before the other characters,” McNamara says, explaining how people will be drawn into the tension through single-earpiece headphones, channeling updates from the negotiating team and even from other sections’ calls. The staging is similarly revealing: a skeletal structure represents the vehicle, both exposing the experience of the officers inside and, according to director Joe Douglas, reflecting “the police service being cut to the bone”.
Stand By is one of six shows being presented in the drill hall of an Army Reserve Centre in Edinburgh’s New Town, a new venue hosted—for the first time at the Fringe—by the army. Complete with historic mess bar and tuckshop it will be staffed by serving soldiers, with the programme—a collaboration with Summerhall—an exploration of what the army represents in the 21st century. McNamara’s preoccupations in Stand By present clear parallels. “People see the uniform rather than the human being,” he argues. “The audience will hear an opinion from someone in uniform that they might not be used to hearing.”
What remains to be seen is how much Stand By’s gritty realism, drawn from McNamara’s time in the force, will play out in its conclusion; whether the (in)action on stage will end with the officers being called off, as McNamara says often happens. In short, until the play opens, we too are on standby.