Saturday, 20 January 2018

Theatre review: The War Has Not Yet Started

Southwark Playhouse's Little space kicks off the year with a rep season transferring from Plymouth. The banner name it's been given is "Strange Tales From The West Country," something certainly borne out by The War Has Not Yet Started - the strangeness at least, the country it comes from is actually Russia. Mikhail Durnenkov's play, translated here by Noah Birksted-Breen, is a darkly surreal sketch show in which Hannah Britland, Sarah Hadland and Mark Quartley run through a series of scenes of very modern paranoia and isolation. Gordon Anderson's production matter-of-factly casts the roles age- and gender-blind, so in a couple of permutations Quartley is a mother, Britland a father and Hadland their son. In the same costumes throughout they bring a naturalistic performance style to scenes that are anything but.

Early on, a man accuses a stranger of having an entirely imaginary affair with his wife that he wants very real reparations for; the surreal twists it takes makes it a funny story that could have come out of a number of comedy shows, but most of what follows has a much darker and disturbing tone.

In fact if I did have a single point of reference for it it would be Chris Morris' infamous Jam: Like that show it takes the rhythms and format of a comedy show and applies them to an often disturbing existential crisis. Its Russian origins show through: There are other unhappy wives and suspicious husbands, but there are also signs of a greater source of discontent, in stories where going on a peace march is treated as an incitement to war or - in a fictional sketch based on a true story of fake news - the TV news doesn't correct a story that proves untrue because it sounds like something their enemy would do anyway.

Most memorable is a sketch in which Quartley claims to be a robot who can pass for human because he's been programmed with a sense of the absurd; it's sweet and funny and, when it pulls the rug out from under you, is the most devastating piece perhaps because it's the most plausible. Like any show in this format The War Has Not Yet Started has mixed results, and its very dark heart can be hard to take but like Jam, a couple of whose sketches have stayed with me as works of dark genius for nearly twenty years, some moments really hit a nerve.

The War Has Not Yet Started by Mikhail Durnenkov in a version by Noah Birksted-Breen is booking in repertory until the 10th of February at Southwark Playhouse's Little Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 15 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Steve Tanner.

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