Tom Basden’s There is a War makes for a more entertaining second half of Double Feature 2, at least for the first few scenes. Occupying the kind of slightly surreal version of reality he has become known for, it is set in a non-specific domain where a civil war is being waged between the Blues and the Greys.
When he is being sharply satirical, Basden is at his best and it shows in the great opening third of the show and the way he skewers the group mentalities that emerge. Whether it is the meaningless bureaucracy of the military, the lengths some people are driven to to avoid certain things, the hypocrisy of the peace protestors, or the sheer ridiculousness of a conflict that no-one is 100% sure about – exactly how different is blue from grey anyway… – yet they all take part in it anyway, he mines a brilliantly dark shaft of humour through the brief appearances of some hilarious characters. Kirsty Bushell’s fantastically-unprepared dance-drama teacher, Trevor Cooper’s Big Dave – advising Richard Hope’s Field Commander Goodman on military strategy, the imprisoned yet chirpy soldier (I think played by Richard Goulding): they all help play up the absurdity of the situation.
But Basden also has a serious point to make about the horrendous effects of the mindlessness of war and one that becomes increasingly important as the play progresses, to the severe detriment of the humour. Throughout the show we follow Anne, a young doctor as played by Phoebe Fox who has been drafted into the army, and it is through her bemused eyes that we see much of the randomness unfolding. Yet it isn’t abundantly clear why she is so ignorant of everything that has been going on – she is constantly surprised by things yet we’re given to believe the conflict has been raging for ages – her naïveté becomes quite annoying as does the over-riding desire to find the hospital which drives her continued journey to a rather baffling finale.
Having opened with such a humourous sequence of scenes, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed at the way the black comedy petered out yet wasn’t replaced by anything as equally strong. Basden shows us a society almost completely dehumanised but there’s little genuine sense of tragedy about it, rather the easy manipulation of some singing trying its best to mask a dulling sense of repetition as we grind to a conclusion which felt a long time coming and even then, only offering a frustratingly undeveloped hint of the Machiavellian forces at play that were keeping this artificial conflict going. There’s definitely something here, not least in Basden’s innate deep understanding of what ‘darkly comic’ actually means and an ensemble throwing themselves into it with gusto, but not even the thrill of Trystan Gravelle’s singing could really save the relatively weak way it ends.