Back in the day when the Dorfman Theatre at the National was called the Cottesloe Theatre (which wasn’t that long ago), it hosted a show called The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. The West End run of that play is in performances for its final extension at the time of writing. There, a schoolboy scurries about, sometimes quite hurriedly, telling his story with a most faithful commitment to pinpoint accuracy in the details of the narrative. Some use of chalk is used to draw on the floor. While the subject matter can be very dark, it’s told so fascinatingly that audiences largely come away feeling they’ve seen something very much worth seeing.
In Us/Them, there are two schoolchildren, played by adult performers (I only mention this as I kept forgetting I was watching adults), Girl (Gytha Parmentier) and Boy (Roman Van Houtven), who reel off facts and statistics at such a pace it was almost bamboozling. It reminded me of Gordon Brown as Chancellor of the Exchequer talking numbers and spending objectives in his Budget speeches unnecessarily rapidly. The chalk comes out within the first minute of the show, which, combined with the play’s pace, as well as props coming out from various places and gradually filling the stage, reminded me of The Curious Incident.
There the comparison must end. After all, what happens to one fictional dog, however significant that dog was to the other show’s characters, is hardly comparable to the dramatization of the Beslan school siege of September 2004. Us/Them is a rare play in that it takes the version of events as given by children both seriously and at face value. Neither Boy nor Girl are portrayed as unreliable narrators, and their credibility remains solid throughout: at one point, when their imaginations do run a tad off the beaten path, it’s quickly drawn back with a line so simple and yet so devastating: “But it didn’t happen like that.”
The competitiveness between the students is conveyed brilliantly in spirited and energetic performances. It gets highly physical on occasion, demonstrating the nimbleness of youth, though with a fair amount of action acted out as well as described, perhaps too little is left to the imagination. There are intriguing insights, too, into the thought processes of children, or at least these ones, who do not turn their gaze away from anything unpalatable in the course of the siege, as adults may be at least tempted to do, but keep watching, taking in what’s happening. That is why their accounts come across so well in this play, unfiltered and relatively unopinionated.
A second rarity is achieved by this production as it’s a show that feels longer than its running time, but not in a bad way. The monotony of being holed up in a hostage situation is (ahem) captured perfectly. I never felt I was there with ‘us’ (as opposed to ‘them’; the ‘them’ in the show’s title being “the terrorists”), or anything of the sort, thank goodness – but I was impressed at how this most unpleasant subject matter was told in a surprisingly compelling manner.
I would have liked to have seen some other perspectives included, perhaps one from one of the many parents spoken about, and another from a hostage negotiator. But, as it stands, this is tragicomedy at its finest, it’s a little daft and yet often sublime. This is a magnificent and highly imaginative play.
Review by Chris Omaweng
In September 2004 a group of terrorists stormed a school in Beslan taking hundreds of children hostage. The ensuing siege lasted three days and left many dead. Us/Them is not a straightforward account of this terrible tragedy, but an exploration of the entirely individual way children cope with traumatic situations.
After a sell-out run at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2016 and winning The Scotsman Fringe First Award, Us/Them comes to the NT.
BRONKS and Richard Jordan Productions
with Theatre Royal Plymouth and Big in Belgium
by Carly Wijs
Now playing until 18 Feb
Running Time: Approximately 1 hour