A young man, on the cusp of coming of age, grows up in a military family: his dad's a reservist, his brother's a cadet, his mum's quietly proud of both of them. But one day, his dad's called for an unexpected tour of duty… and he never comes back. At university now, the bereaved son's grief turns to anger, not at the Iraqi men who killed his father but at the British state which sent him there. Radicalised by student politics and alienated from his family, he plans a horrifying revenge.
It's a provocative storyline, but the handling is balanced and subtle. Whether you wear a red poppy or a white one, you'll find your views are represented here – and you'll also find angles which question and challenge you. The core plot, meanwhile, turns on something we can all agree is wrong: the wicked manipulation of a young man's grief, by a leader whose motives go far beyond the political and into the chillingly sadistic.
The telling isn't entirely without humour: there's some sharply-observed parody of student politics, embodied by the woman who objects to burning Remembrance Day poppies on purely environmental grounds. A few of the family scenes are genuinely moving too, especially as we see younger brother Callum reach out, fail to hold on, and slowly drift away. But the tone as a whole is sombre and disturbing – all the more so because the story, though extreme, is entirely credible too.
The physical set-pieces are well-conceived and beautifully performed, haunting in their evocative portrayal of both action and emotion. The treatment of "the knock" – the instant when the family learns their loved one has died – is as powerful and draining as that moment demands. But the more naturalistic dialogue isn't quite as strong, and sometimes proved harder to believe in; it's here, in their spoken work, that there's still room for these young actors to evolve and grow.
Overall though, Byteback Theatre present a mature, nuanced, and painfully believable analysis of a controversial but relevant topic. This company is earning a reputation in Edinburgh for impactful, socially-conscious work; I for one hope very much to see them here again next year.