Bad Roads, Royal Court

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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.

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Scorched, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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Jack, feeble in body and mind, wiles away the days watching news broadcasts from operation Desert Storm. The former WWII soldier, now safe and looked after in a care home, vividly recounts memories from his youth and on the front line. He may not be aware of the present, but his past is ever present and will not let me rest. Solo show Scorched is a moving and honest look at veterans’ experiences of combat and ageing, leaving the troubling feeling that society is not fulfilling its responsibility to this vulnerable demographic.

Lisle Turner’s script, inspired by her grandfather’s life, is an expressionistic snapshot of his thoughts at the twilight of his life. Stationed in Egypt during the war, we hear tales of heat, explosions, and beautiful women interspersed with memories from his childhood. The storyline is loosely constructed; it is episodic rather than wholly linear. This structure works well considering that these are Jack’s memories he plays out for himself rather than for an audience arbitrarily included in the action without being allocated any clear identity.

There are some beautiful design elements: Jack remembers tattooing himself and this is projected on his arm rather than shown with makeup. To see something normally considered permanent conveyed through an ephemeral form is a fitting reminder that nothing truly lasts forever and Jack is nearly at the end of his life. The loveliest of other whimsical projections is on a cascade of sand poured from a dinner tray. This sand is everywhere, like the memories that cling onto Jack’s deteriorating mind and are constantly discovered in unsuspecting places – a clever device either by Turner or director Claire Coache. A simple puppet is used well but not enough, as are mundane objects that transform into others more exciting – an umbrella becomes a fishing rod, a footstool is a motorbike. This object manipulation is a lovely surprise and suits Jack’s mental state well, so it could be utilised further to comment on the childhood of old age.

Robin Berry plays Jack with power and pathos, initially with a delicate frailty that gives way to a younger, more powerful man who enjoys boxing, horse riding, dancing and defending his country. Berry has a strong physical presence that is eminently watchable and a range that makes him believe both as the older and younger Jack.

Strengthening and streamlining the staging and theatrical devices will help make the script feel less like a random collection of memories, and reordering some of scenes would also have the same effect. Jack is a fantastic character and the play is a fitting tribute to elderly veterans, though also serves to pay homage to a generation that soon will no longer be with us.

Scorched runs through 29th August.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

Give Me Your Love, Battersea Arts Centre

I’ve grown up always having pet cats and it’s absolutely true that cats love being in cardboard boxes. I stumbled on a Buzzfeed or similar article recently that says cats seek out boxes or other encloses spaces when they’re stressed or in need of comfort. Humans have similar instincts, really. Think about the last time you were upset or stressed: did you want to hide under a duvet, make a pillow fort or crawl into a small, dark space? Or at least curl up into as small of a ball as you could? Observations and life experience indicate we’re pretty similar to our felines in that way. So it would make sense that someone suffering from grief or trauma might hide in a box and never come out.

Zach (David Woods) does just that with feline stubbornness and rejection of direct human contact. An Iraq veteran suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) living with an unsympathetic wife (convincingly voiced offstage by Jon Haynes), we never see Zach’s face, or anyone else’s, in Give Me Your Love. This quiet, tiny show looks empty but brims with feeling in a sophisticated script, discusses cutting edge medical research without boring the audience and shares the horrors of PTSD that many of our vets are left to contend with, unsupported. A talking cardboard box and a patient drug dealer behind a chained door captivate for about an hour with flawless, sensitive performances and detailed dialogue that delicately balances humour and pathos.

Though it’s easy to focus on Woods as the central character, Haynes wonderfully supports and opposes him as wife Carol and friend/drug dealer Ieuan. Carol opposes Zach’s desire to explore MDMA’s potential to cure his PTSD, Ieuan, not unfamiliar with trauma himself, encourages Zach whilst displaying genuine, moving care for him. There’s a brotherly intimacy here that’s lovely to watch, and is perfectly captured by the pair of actors.

Jacob Williams’ set is super-realistic: there are no metaphors here, just the sparse filth that Zach lives in. The detail is in the tiniest things: the way masking tape curls at the edges, the holes in the box for Zach’s arms, the stains on the walls. The lack of people on stage calls for other means of  visual stimulation, and Williams’ work exceeds this tall order very well. Give Me Your Love is never boring, visually or otherwise.  Sound and light by March Cher-Gibard and Richard Vabre match the set’s naturalism, then toy with the audience’s perception of reality through abstract and expressionistic approaches. It’s a jarring transition, but manages to compliment Zach’s turmoil and experimental recovery instead of feeling stuck on and questions what is objective reality and what is in Zach’s head. 

The inclusion of using Ecstasy in PTSD therapy is fascinating research that doesn’t go too much in depth, but can feel extraneous to Zach’s struggle. It’s not about the recovery, but the day-to-day existence and paralysis that can result from action solders experience on the front line. The dialogue still flows, but the research informs the play rather than being the centre of it. This certainly isn’t a bad thing at all because the script could easily end up a lecture; the focus is very much on Zach’s mental and emotional health. The clever use of humour prevents it from becoming a drag, and exquisitely balances the brutality and debilitation of mental health conditions. This is a vital theatrical contribution to the mental health dialogue and de-stigmatisation, and one executed with delicate, detailed skill and a moving emotional journey. A fantastic watch.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.