This is a very powerful dramatic text. Content is topical and resonant, and the narrative and plot are extremely well communicated and structured. In terms of the writing itself, then, this play is superb. However, theatrical techniques and staging methods employed in this particular performance are rather questionable.
I shall start with the use of the ensemble. In theatre, one should either show or tell, and both can have equally fruitful effects. If, however, one decides to do both, what we hear should match up with the material we see. This is not the case in this performance. The story we are given by the Narrator (Susan Lawson-Reynolds) only partially matches up with the action we see re-enacted behind her by the ensemble, and this allows for a sense of dissonance and instability in our reading. It also leads to a sense of disappointment and stuntedness when we expect something dramatic or passionate from what we are told and yet end up seeing something understated and neutral in reality. A good example of this is in the Narrator’s description of Mili’s (Dino Kelly) jump whilst Kelly prepares to portray this Upstage. As the other cast members watch on, reacting as depicted, and whilst Lawson-Reynolds describes his cruciform pose and the terrible and visceral nature of the jump itself, Kelly stays completely still, smiles, and then walks out of his spotlight. This is most underwhelming.
I would recommend either including the narration alone or accompanying it with action that is either completed or implied as such – with this particular example, for instance, Kelly could jump off of the rostrum as the lights snap black, leaving the impact to our imaginations; this would be far stronger both emotively and technically. Otherwise, the portrayed action is jarringly oppositional to the narration – as when Lawson-Reynolds describes that she smiled lovingly at Mili, yet Saffron Coomber (playing Mina) is completely expressionless and deadpan – and this is undesirable. One could perhaps even read into this as the Narrator misremembering or overdramatising her own story, which I do not believe is the intention here.
This miscommunication also dampens the effect of Mili’s death, for Kelly delivers Mili's story of jumping one last time from the bridge with vigour and energy, and the language his character uses is jokey and positive…and then suddenly, the Narrator reveals that this was "the last time [she] saw him" – an expression rather overused in this play, I might add. Our reading is severely compromised by this form of miscommunication, and this should be promptly addressed. In fact, this entire reunion is rather understated and overly corny. It feels rushed and ill-conceived. I would recommend reworking this section.
The use of microphones in this performance is bizarre and stylistically inconsistent. It denaturalises the action and distances us from it, causing us to experience the characters indirectly through the means of technology, and this is undesirable and ineffective. It also has no relevance to what is otherwise a rather naturalistic acting style. The same can be said of the music the ensemble produce, banging on the rostra, singing into the microphones. There is no reason as to why this music cannot be played overhead, instead.
It must be decided as to whether the performers represent the characters depicted in the text themselves or symbolic representations of feeling, suspense and humanity in general. They cannot be both. For example, the bizarre decision to have Rosie Gray (playing Leila) perform her dramatic wailing down the microphone, her general disposition calm and still, whilst other characters interact with her as though she is fatally injured and in distress. Our reading here is destabilised in that we do not know whether to consider her as a symbolic representation of suffering, conflict and tension or as a representation of Leila’s character. This confusion certainly adds to our desirable disorientation in this scene, to its abrupt violence and surreal nature, but it is certainly not the most effective way of communicating drama and distress; it simply detaches us from the characters themselves and their story and diverts us towards the themes of suffering, fear, pain and war in themselves. This semi-Brechtian technique is not particularly effective here, when we consider that the performance maintains psychological realism, nay increases it, throughout.
Moving on to acting. Naturalism is rather poor in this performance, but actors retain great energy and characterisation. Other than the fact that Gray first portrays her character as rather girly and energised, only to portray her as neutral, cool and collected throughout the rest of the performance, the characterisations we are offered are consistent and well communicated. The performers clearly understand their characters’ intent and emotions well. Chemistry between Mili and Mina is also wonderfully portrayed by Coomber and Kelly, and scenes requiring altogether a range in physical affection are handled remarkably well.
As for Lawson-Reynolds’s acting…I remain irritated. Lawson-Reynolds’s intonation is monotonous and repetitive, as are her movements. I would urge her to reconsider how she uses her hands whilst speaking, as she repeats the same gestures over and over throughout. I would also recommend that Lawson-Reynolds have clearer actions to perform when sitting at the front of the stage, motionless and expressionless, whilst the ensemble perform behind her. I would like to see more expressivity in these moments, as though she is reliving and recalling her memories. Her delivery is unnaturalistic, sometimes as though she is delivering poetry, and other times, as though she is lecturing or giving an inspirational talk. Expressivity certainly increases as the play goes on, but, overall, a very weak performance from Lawson-Reynolds.
There is also a notable issue with the writing of the Narrator’s lines. The register of language she uses changes every so often, from generally well-spoken and standard to phrases like ‘Like, actual grown women’ that communicate a certain colloquialism, and this unstable idiolect compromises the credibility of her character to some degree. The Narrator and Mina, the former being the older representation of the latter, are costumed completely differently, speak completely differently and act completely differently. Whilst it is obvious that Mina has undergone maturity and a reclamation of her Muslim identity, we need to see this communicated in the story; otherwise, it is difficult to understand their relationship beyond first-person self-references, especially with the so-termed “colour-blind casting” of the two versions of Mina.
In terms of the writing itself, the symbolism of the famous Old Bridge, its relationship with heritage, territory and ‘home’ and its collapse and rebuild, is used effectively in this text. It is both endearing and poignant. Characters are developed well and all have clear objectives, personalities and traits. I would just perhaps recommend more attention be given to Leila over Sasha (Emilio Iannucci), whose humorous outbursts perhaps overshine her presence in the text. This is an issue chiefly because of Leila's fate and how moved we should be by this later on. Nevertheless, an appropriate amount of time is dedicated to developing the characters and their relations, to settling us into the world of the play before war rips their world apart. Humour is effectively balanced with harsher material to communicate the absurdity and terror of war, as well. Character profiles are so strong and narrative is so well conceived that it is easy to fall in love with these characters and to truly empathise with them and thus with the real people who have inspired their story. A very commendable text.
A few final notes: do not stand in the aisles. If this is unavoidable, remember that you are still visible here to an entire third of the audience, and so any interactions amongst one another and any slow walks, peeking at the stage whilst awaiting your cue, will be observed. This completely destroys illusion. Following on from this, when Coomber clears the stage of the food and plates, this takes far too long. I fail to understand why these could not have been simply shoved under the central platform, instead, especially considering that Coomber re-enters the stage straight after, meaning that she only left to clear these props. When performers exit the stage, they must do so quietly! These performers are incredibly noisy. On the night I saw the performance, the haze was so thick that it set off the fire alarm, which rather beat me to it in stating that haze is rather over-relied upon in the second act. Costume changes are definitely necessary for this performance, yet performers only change menial aspects of their clothing, sometimes even carrying the same item of clothing from the scene before around with them in subsequent scenes. Putting more clothes on over existing clothes is not a costume change; this should be addressed. Finally, to end on a semi-positive note, tech is used superbly in this performance and facilitates action well, especially during scenes of explosion and gunfire, but I would just recommend that music be pre-set to the desired volume, as there are a few moments where volume is quickly reduced once music starts playing, due to volume being too loud. This is distracting.