Review: Untold Wars: A New Verbatim Musical

This review first appeared on the Ed Fringe Review website on 19 August 2015.

★★★☆☆

How do you capture a hundred years of war in a fifty-five minute show? A verbatim theatre musical tasking itself with covering every conflict between 1914 and the present day, 203 Productions’ new show is certainly full of ambition, and while this kind of format necessarily prevents a complete picture of the tragedies on display, the overall production is solid enough to generate one or two deeply powerful moments of drama.

This is a show that doesn’t mess about; the very first line is a bellowed “Take Cover!”, and the following explosion leads into an opening dance number which makes skilful use of lighting and sound to convey the disorienting nature of a battlefield, before crashing into the rousing main theme. From there the show takes the form of a non-linear series of songs covering a number of war-related topics, including basic training, combat injuries and battlefield photography, interspersed with real-life accounts from various soldiers and family members. The dance and choreography are top-notch throughout, and display the self-assurance necessary to cover this kind of subject matter.

The songs themselves are a bit of a mixed bag, and reflect a lack focus in the show overall. The show flips between wildly different perspectives and varieties of combat without much of a narrative or thematic through-line. While individual songs are affecting and original, including a darkly brilliant re-telling of basic training as a children’s nursery rhyme, others rely on trite and overdone clichés, including a reading of ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, which may the single most over-signified war poem in history, and certainly doesn’t bring the word ‘untold’ to mind.

There are also a few technical problems, with the deafening music frequently drowning out the singers, which only highlights its blatantly manipulative nature. You can practically hear the composer yelling ‘Cry, damn you, cry!’, rather than allowing the action on stage to speak for itself.

There are many times when the music and the action seem at loggerheads, but the action does win out in the end. While riddled with problems, this is a play trying to do interesting and important things, and coming close to success. Pacing is largely impeccable, making this a lean, to-the-point, if slightly wooden production. Solid, but not something you need to rush out and see.

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