The door to the theatre is flanked by a pair of unblinking sentries; on the stage we find uniformed men and women, some in modern battle dress and some from an earlier age. On a shouted warning, they spring to life – launching into a dynamic, physical, secretly-thrilling enactment of a sudden burst of conflict. It's an effective opening, albeit one that's graced many a previous Fringe play. But then they do something unprecedented… they burst into song.
Untold Wars: A New Verbatim Musical is exactly what the title claims it is, and it's every bit as bizarre as it sounds. Ostensibly drawing from 100 years of military history – but in reality covering the two World Wars and present-day Afghanistan – 203 Theatre take stories told by real-life servicemen and women, and transform them into songs. The selection of tales they've chosen is an interesting, unexpected one; we hear from a war photographer, from a man who's traumatised by delivering bad news, and from a solider whose career came to an end for a reason as banal as a bee-sting.
Production values are consistently high, and the physical energy of that opening scene returns at measured intervals throughout the piece. There's some clever imagery too: a pair of Union Jacks, waved patriotically in the opening number, become aggressive and threatening when pushed into the face of a Great War conscript later on. The music is compelling and, though some of the singing voices are clearly stronger than others, the requisite show-stopping numbers are present and correct.
But the problem is that musicals have a rhythm and a rulebook of their own, and aren't exactly renowned for their sensitive treatment of heavyweight themes. So while some military experiences (the separation from loved ones, for example) are an excellent match for this particular theatrical form, it's a lot harder to ignore the genre's implicit jazz hands when they're tackling a story about PTSD. It's a thoroughly worthy, completely sincere attempt – but there's a fundamental tension here which I could never quite drive out of my mind.
I can't, of course, know just how verbatim the piece is – what liberties they've taken with their source material. But I do know Wilfed Owen's famous poem Dulce Et Decorum Est, and the musical makeover they've given it plants at least some doubts in my mind. This is very specifically, and very deliberately, a poem about a gas attack; yet here it's tweaked, cut off halfway through a line, and used to punctuate a story which has nothing to do with gas at all. That's a picky point maybe, but it makes me question how much 203 Theatre understand the text they’re working with, or at least how much they've chosen to stay true to it.
Serious themes deserve serious respect, and by the closing moments – when they played the Last Post slightly too quickly, and left the flag which had covered a coffin casually discarded on the floor – my respect for this particular production had worn rather thin. But it's a brave experiment all the same, and the quality of the delivery is impossible to ignore. So despite some strong reservations, I'm glad I watched it, and I'm looking forward to seeing what 203 Theatre bring to next year's Fringe.