Theatre in Wales

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Searing Owen Sheers Book-of-the-Year Adaptation for Stage

The Best of Touring Theatre

Pink Mist- Bristol Old Vic , Bristol Old Vic Theatre , July 10, 2015
The Best of Touring Theatre by Pink Mist- Bristol Old Vic Director John Retallack’s superb, physical adaptation of Owen Sheers’ Wales Book of the Year “Pink Mist” makes thanks among its acknowledgements to the British Legion. “The Two Worlds of Charlie F”, which played at the Sherman in July 2012, was performed by Bravo 22, a company made up of wounded service veterans. The interviews and research that Owen Sheers made for that production led to the writing of “Pink Mist”, which has in a nice circularity become its own piece for performance. “The characters” says Sheers “are my invention. Many of the experiences, however, are echoes of real events.”

Although the origins of “Pink Mist” are in book and radio it transfers with ease to stage. It has a symmetry to its casting, three men who sign up for duty in Afghanistan, three women who remain differently at home. It has a skilfully interwoven tripartite structure. It has a finale that links straight back to its opening. Its language, that of six Bristolians, necessarily avoids words of Latinate origin and length. A rhyme that shocks like “from six foot two to four foot three/…double amputee” is as complex as it gets. It works entirely on those words in the language that are the shortest and the crispest. Surprisingly, given the nature of the subject and setting, it contains just one single f----. Peter Edwards’ Geraint aka Taff looks into a butcher’s window, sees a string of chickens, “scrawny f---ers”, that remind him of the three boy-recruits that they once were. “Pink Mist” is rebuke to the practice, and belief, that an expletive-drenched language is indicator of authenticity and substitute for expressiveness.

Writing for performance needs an eye. The script sees the bizarre image of a blue and a green plastic chair blown up into a tree. The pale blue shade of a heron’s egg from the Severn Estuary is contrast to the ever-looming threat of the pink in the title.

The staging of “Pink Mist” at the Old Vic theatre is fitting as its location is a precisely described Bristol. Gregory Burke’s servicemen in a de-industrialised Fife had minimum wage supermarket jobs as their alternative to Basra. Five hundred miles south Phil Dunster’s Arthur, born and bred in Severn Beach, drives imported cars onto the vast car parks at Portbury Dock. Alex Stedman’s Hads has had a grandfather shot in the head at point blank range in Somalia. For his mother (Zara Ramm) his job with a fashion chain at Cribbs Causeway, between the do-nuts and the store of cinema merchandise, is an accomplishment. For the Shirehampton teenager it is not enough.

The staging is a fifteen foot square and all six actors are present throughout. The production eschews the fashion for straight-through action, its two-hour length punctuated by an interval. It is entirely the right decision; “Pink Mist” is an emotional course and an audience wants to take stock at a two-thirds point, to better savour the whole.

Peter Harrison’s lighting reaches to a harsh yellow for the scenes in which the soldiers depart Camp Bastion for their deadly patrols in Afghanistan. John Retallack’s production has a particular strength in capturing that sense of conflict’s instantaneity, that point when a patrol without incident is hit by assault. Jon Nicholls’ sound design is complex and crucial.

George Mann has received praise on Theatre-Wales in February 2012. For “Pink Mist” he is assistant director and choreographer for the superbly honed synchrony of the physical movement. This movement comes from a cast with members who have barely graduated. Erin Doherty’s Lisa is the partner and mother who has to live with the effects of post-stress traumatic syndrome in all its manifestations. The details are searing. She, Rebecca Hamilton and Peter Edwards are all 2015 graduates of Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. It is hard to conceive a more demanding and accomplished entry into professional life. An overblown West Country accent is a staple in British stage and screen. To this once Bristol resident of three years the work by dialect coach Gary Owston and the phrasing of the company sound exemplary.

“Pink Mist” looks unblinkingly at the paradox of soldiery. The price may be terrible. A mother looks to the bruised and swollen face in a hospital bed and thinks the identification an error. When the aircraft lands at Brize Norton the soldiers’ boots still have Afghan dust on them. A stricken veteran back home can let a cigarette stay lit until it burns a knuckle. “Nothing is as it was” says Gwen, even with a man unscathed on the surface.

But Arthur Brown, Portbury dock worker, in the solidarity of uniform becomes “King” or “Kingy”. Looking back, it is a matter of weeks, he says, “from ration pack to lunch box.” In a bewildering, automating world of demasculinisation there is the pride in the regiment and the ultimate bond of joint peril faced. “I loved basic” says Taff honestly after six gruelling weeks at Catterick.

The script records the tenderness of respect accorded to the dead in “Rose Cottage.” All it takes is for one IED to go unnoticed or an ally in error to launch his inescapable thermally-guided weaponry and “That’s all they are, a shower of pink..” As for the nature of these very particular campaigns of our time the troops have their phrase books with local translations. The phrase “Do you need help?” is to hand. The very next is “Stop or I’ll shoot.”

In 2011 Aleks Sierz wrote “Rewriting the Nation. British Theatre Today.” In his chapter “Global Roaming” he looked at the response of theatre to the world outside the concerns of Britain. Of the twenty-six productions that Sierz surveyed, not one came from Wales or was Wales-related. Then the Sherman, in a not over-ripe period, did “the Sanger.” National Theatre of Wales started at Haverfordwest’s Tasker Milward School and went to Edinburgh. Theatre validates itself by looking afar and with depth. “Pink Mist” stands proudly and superbly alongside these predecessors.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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