A chance to get up close with personnel

Forget Robson and Jerome – the singing soldiers of a new karaoke installation are the real deal, says Lynne Walker

Sunday 23 October 2011 06:42
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Seven service personnel sing their hearts out, offering you the chance to join in an intimate karaoke liaison. It sounds bizarre, like some weird television show. In fact, Renny O'Shea's video installation, The Soldier's Song, is an intriguing piece of performance art which gives the participant a fresh perspective on some of those serving in the military today. During her research, O'Shea got to know a lot of soldiers. Out of those she met, six men and one woman agreed to allow her theatre company, Quarantine, to film them performing their favourite karaoke song. Some were captured singing in barracks, other in various pubs and a couple in a karaoke booth. All were stationed back here at the time and gave up spare time to be involved in O'Shea's project, aimed at shaking our preconceptions about the army and the people in it. The results, enhanced and altered by participating members of the public, resound around a small booth in Manchester's City Art Gallery.

Approaching the space you see a rough-hewn wooden shed, held together with basic metal hinges. The padlocked door opens to reveal a velvety darkness surrounded by felt-clad walls, with only a small window of smoke-coloured perspex in the roof. A large screen dominates, and a microphone on a stand beckons would-be karaoke singers. Press one of seven buttons and the film footage begins, showing a soldier – some looking a little shy, others clearly enjoying their moment of karaoke fame – preparing to sing.

The choice of music is interesting, with an underlying current of irony in Sergeant Dave's choice of "Please Release Me". He's a Grenadier Guard who plays the violin, banjo and mandolin and has served in Afghanistan and Northern Ireland. Not all the soldiers are so musical, though Corporal "Dee" is a cornettist in the Band of the King's Division while Lance Corporal Ian is a percussionist who also plays guitar in the army swing band. Sergeant Stevie D, who served in the first Gulf War in Kuwait as well as Bosnia, Kosovo, Northern Ireland, Afghanistan and Iraq, seems convinced that "Good times never seemed so good" in Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline".

With 28 years in the army behind him, Warrant Officer 1st Class Shaun enjoys judo and falconry and singing Robbie Williams's "Angels". Colour Sergeant "Brez" , who also sings swing and soul, gives an accomplished account of the Sinatra favourite "I've Got You Under My Skin" while Corporal "Dee" chooses the sentimental McFly hit "All About You".

Sergeant Dave thinks it's good that we don't know anything about the lives of soldiers since "we don't know anything about the people who built the M62 either". But in spending a few minutes of intimacy and camaraderie with a stranger who might fight in our name, our relationship with that person changes. What is their background, what are their feelings about the enemy and how do they feel about the public's attitude to them? "It's been a long time coming," says Stevie D, "but it's great to finally have public support."

Some basic facts about each soldier appear at the end of each song and I discovered that Sergeant Heather "H" from Heckmondwike, with whom I enjoyed singing along to "I Never Promised You a Rose Garden", has served in the Royal Logistics Corps for 13 years. Her future, she hopes, will be simple – with a nice home and lots of pets. However remote our connection is with our service personnel, this imaginative installation is powerful yet often humorous, depending on the individual – a group of schoolgirls, some Japanese tourists and a couple of larky lads were clearly moved when I was there – and his or her willingness to engage with these soldiers through their songs.

'The Soldier's Song', Manchester City Art Gallery (0161 235 8888) to 4 July; Battersea Arts Centre, London SW11 (020 7223 2223) 6 to 18 July

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