Bad Roads, Royal Court

Whilst war rages in the Ukraine, a journalist goes to the front lines and falls in love. Girls sit on a park bench, waiting for their soldier boyfriends. A poor couple takes advantage of a minor accident. A man is stopped at a checkpoint.

Moments from a country in conflict flicker and flash through a stark, densely obstructive woodland, in seemingly no particular order, with no through-line. The lack of narrative continuity and too-broad themes work against the success of Bad Roads, but small, regularly lit matches – unrepeatable and short-lived encounters between people irrevocably altered by wartime – fight the loose dramaturgy of the whole and threaten to set the play alight. Unclear sightlines from Camilla Clarke’s set enhance the sparky, snapshot effect of these moments with palpable tension, as if the half-seen characters might be ghosts, or memories, lingering on bloodstained land.

The script is about half an hour longer than needed to get it’s message across what with the lack of overarching plot. Some of the scenes splutter, then stall but carry on regardless, painfully. We don’t get to know any of the characters in this montage of a play, but it captures the consequences of war on civilians and soldiers – albeit in generalised terms – somewhat effectively. Similar to Girl from the North Country, this work aims to capture the mood of a wider time and place rather than the stories of individual people – but Girl from the North Country has just enough of a story to hold the show together. Bad Roads doesn’t.

The cast is generally strong, an achievement considering they are playing multiple roles and have little continuity. It’s great that it’s female-led, but the stories are largely gender-balanced with stereotypes emerging from the underdeveloped writing – the male soldier as animal, the teenager as nasty and the young woman as too forgiving of abuse.

Though despite it’s shortcomings and lack of overall cohesion, there are some great individual moments. But does it provide any sort of Ukraine-specific insight? Not particularly. We know war is bad and fucks up the people that aren’t maimed or killed, but we learn little about the intricacies of this particular conflict. Whilst writer Natal’ya Vorozhbit and translator Sasha Dugdale do well to not follow a didactic route, more structured support of a clearer message would make this a stronger work.

Bad Roads runs through 23 December.

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