Pink Mist at Bristol Old Vic

“The Thekla was packed. A retro night of old Bristol tunes, the kinda stuff my mum would play – Tricky, Portishead, Massive.” As I stand in MShed, staring up at Banksy’s Grim Reaper, which was cut from that famous music venue of a boat, saved from further deterioration, cleaned and placed in this museum of all things Bristol, I think of these words. I think of how local yet international Pink Mist is. How recent yet ancient its history. The history of war. But mostly, about how those words convey the unmistakably tender youth of the speaker. And of his mates.

It’s on the Thekla where Arthur tells his childhood friends, Hads and Taff, that he’s signed up to 1st Batallion. The Rifles. It’s that night that Taff decides to join him and Hads begins to water the seed planted. Enough of the living for a Friday night, already with the parking up imported Mazdas at Portbury Dock, driving thousands of miles for months on end, getting nowhere. Arthur wants adventure, needs to be a man. Hads does too, a retail job at Cribbs shopping mall not quite cutting it. Taff and Lisa had their son when they were 16 years old, “a father before I was grown,” and so the army pay packet was, for him, the real pull. Because, isn’t this why the majority of boys and girls join the Army? Not from a sense of blind patriotism (though this may grow over time) but because the lure is too strong to resist? The lure of really being alive, of camaraderie, of making a difference, of money? Hasn’t it ever been the case?

“Who wants to play war?”

Pink Mist is back at the Old Vic in celebration of their 250th anniversary, whereby each of the four centuries of this beautiful theatre’s existence is represented. Pink Mist, representing the 21st Century, returns less than a year after it first enraptured Bristol audiences and it gets a standing ovation now as it did then, a rare occurrence indeed at the Old Vic. But why?

Maybe it’s Owen Sheers’ excellent script that they love in this devastating tale about three boys who go to fight in Afghanistan, armed only with basic training and a feeling they can achieve anything? Sheers interviewed countless soldiers in his research. And not only them but also the women in their lives, so that Pink Mist becomes their story too, the ones who are left behind, not knowing what is happening to their husbands, boyfriends, sons. Sheers has turned a potentially difficult subject matter into a beautiful piece of writing, using rhyme and clever verse to transform monologue into something bordering on music, so that the six characters on stage appear to half sing their woes. This musicality is heightened by (too?) strong Bristol accents and imaginative choreography, the cast making moves that turn the words we hear into action – whether that be on the battleground or on the playground, at home or abroad – creating an imagery that is highly effective and real.

Perhaps it’s the flawless acting they so admire? With the bulk of the dialogue, Phil Dunster’s Arthur is the deserved King of this play. He tells his story with warmth, wit and love. Above all love. Yes, one feels that an award may well be on the way to this fine young actor. You’ll recognise Peter Edwards’ Taff and you’ll certainly be drawn to him. You’ve met this troubled and lovely fella in the clubs, off his face, or on the streets, asking for spare change. Now you’ve understood what he’s been through, you wonder whether the next time you pass him in a sleeping bag on the floor outside Tesco, you’ll take him a hot cup of tea, chat to him, get to know him better. Per chance you’ll tell him that you’re sorry, that the politicians who sent him to that dark place in his head didn’t do it in your name (you’ve even joined millions of others to try to stop them from taken such action), that a person so young as he never need witness such horrors. Alex Stedman is Hads, his wheelchair being ever present on stage, fittingly so. Despite having lost so much of his physical self, this character may be the one true survivor, his determined nature conveyed so completely by Stedman.

Sarah is played by Zara Ramm and you can feel her pain above all others because she is Universal Mother: not only Hads’ mum but that of every soldier who has ever gone to war, then, now and, most painfully, most depressingly, in the future. She is anguished, her face contorted by worry. Rebecca Hamilton is Gwen, Arthur’s uncomprehending girlfriend who lost him the very moment he signed up. And Erin Doherty’s Lisa, mother of Taff’s son, will always feel the effects of that war; no R and R for her. These six cast members bounce off each other, a true team, supporting one other all the way, just as the characters they depict do.

Could it be Composer Jon Nicholls’ sound design that has got the audience so excited? Nicholls’ use of dubstep, explosions or howling dogs is the perfect compliment to Peter Harrison’s lighting design, which throws vibrant colour onto Emma Cain’s necessarily sparse set. Or, dammit, they probably love George Mann and John Retallack’s creative direction, as they manage to pull the whole thing together in play that is extremely hard to fault.

Although Pink Mist, never once apportions blame (or even explains what the war is about), I personally would like to kidnap every politician responsible for decision making in matters of war and deployment. I would then tie them to an Old Vic theatre chair, eyes forced open ‘A Clockwork Orange’ style, and make them live, breathe and cry every word, every gut wrench of this play before they are able to send more young people and their families towards such a pointless life-change.

Odd, then, having said all of this that Pink Mist lacked the wow-factor for me. I can’t put my finger on that, nor do I need to, and whatever it was that got at least half the audience up on its feet, I didn’t join them. Were they bewitched by the brilliant acting and the excellent creative team? Or were they showing their support of every Arthur, Taff and Hads out there, assuring them that, like Sarah, Gwen and Lisa, ‘we won’t let you down, we’re your family too. Please hear us’?

I’m not sure it matters. But this play does; you should go and see it if you get the chance. And that’s a definite.

Pink Mist runs at Bristol Old Vic until 5th March

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