Pink Mist

Owen Shears
Bristol Old Vic
Bush Theatre

Pink Mist Credit: Mark Douet
Phil Dunster, Rebecca Hamilton, Zara Ramm and Peter Edwards Credit: Mark Douet
Alex Stedman, Phil Dunster and Peter Edwards Credit: Mark Douet

"You walk this country’s streets," says a character in Owen Sheers powerful play Pink Mist, "and there’s our history" before you in "a spread of regiments" of soldiers sleeping homeless.

These are as much the casualties of war as the burn victim, the maimed, and the amputee, though the trauma that brought them there may not even be known to their families.

Owen Sheers has drawn on the stories of soldiers who fought in Afghanistan to create an account of three young men who went to war and the impact this had on others close to them.

What the cast say and do is heightened by the characters speaking in a naturalistic pattern of verse mostly addressed directly to the audience.

The young friends tell us interlinked stories of their impulsive leaving of boring dead-end jobs in Bristol for recruitment into the army and a stretch of duty in Afghanistan.

There is nothing grand about their reasons for joining up and no special political project involved in the soldiering. As the character Arthur (Phil Dunster) argues, you "can forget queen or country, the mission or belief. It’s about keeping your mates alive. Or avenging the ones who’ve already died."

The extremity of their Afghan experience is emphasised by an intensity of colours in a stark, memorable show design by Peter Harrison and Emma Cains.

The soldiers mount patrols in the white desert heat of a white stage set against a bright white back screen. At night, the screen becomes the bright green circle you might see through night goggles. And when the blue on blue violence of what was once called friendly fire kills comrades, there is the pink blood mist of bodies being vaporised.

A stylised choreography of dance and static positioning draw on military and fighting images to remind us of the way soldiering is defining their lives. A slow motion explosion throws one soldier backwards held by others till he lands in a wheelchair.

Each of the three friends is wounded and traumatised in battle. Part of that trauma is what they witness happening to others. For one, it is the killing of a small Afghan child. For another, it is seeing two American soldiers on fire in a futile death flight from an explosion.

We also hear how these things impact on the women close to them. Lisa (Rebecca Killick) describes her partner waking up from a nightmare with his hand on her throat and him "reaching in panic for the bedside lamp". Gwen (Rebecca Hamilton), feels a distressing gulf has opened up between her and her returning partner.

The cruel British military adventure in Afghanistan killed over four hundred British soldiers and injured thousands more. All the main political parties supported the war, so they were unlikely to launch a Chilcot inquiry into what happened or have much to say about the suffering it inflicted.

This extraordinarily fine and moving show is an important glimpse at a terrible experience, the consequences of which will play out for years to come.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna