Untold Wars: A New Verbatim Musical

Working within the rather large shadow of the National Theatre’s verbatim triumph London Road, new Leeds-based company 203 Theatre have hopped on this particular niche musical bandwagon, but their destination couldn’t be further from the quaint streets of Ipswich. The driving force behind Untold Wars is the aim to shed light on important stories lost in the throes of battle over the past century, drawing on the interviews and testimonials of soldiers, journalists and their loved ones. The work has therefore given itself the unenviable task of tackling the diversity and societal impact of 100 years of war in a one hour slot. It’s a tall order, and 203 have attempted to rise to the challenge by favouring breadth over depth in their storytelling, perhaps to their detriment.

For a company whose heart is very much in the right place, it’s a damn shame.

The company are clearly enamoured with the stories they uncovered preparing the show, presented here in a series of largely unconnected vignettes. The scope of material covered in 40 minutes is impressive, but in skimming the surface of many stories instead of diving head first into few, Untold Wars is tripped up by its own mission statement. In holding on to so many stories, there is no time for the kind of deep exploration which would tease out the real untapped territory they’re striving to reveal. Aside from the added authenticity in the dialogue lent by the verbatim element, the stories presented hardly feel untold.

It is the slickness of the performance that keeps things from falling apart. There’s an energy and pace at work in the acting and the clean, militaristic choreography which demands your attention. The original score is decent, if a little on-the-nose lyrically, and it does feature some lovely violin orchestration which manages to make certain moments more affecting than they should be. There’s also a neat trick at play in the simple staging and costuming - they give the vignettes a timelessness, highlighting that though our methods have changed, the emotional repercussions of combat over the past 100 years very much remain the same.

Unfortunately emotional repercussions are exactly what is missing here. Without an emotional hook, a character to root for, it’s tough to appreciate Untold Wars beyond it’s well-executed surface. For a company whose heart is very much in the right place, it’s a damn shame.

Reviews by Joe Christie

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The Blurb

The past 100 years mark the centenary of the First World War, bringing with it a multitude of stories, sights and sounds, each of breath-taking significance. We focus on the aspects of this time period employing music, song and movement and first-hand accounts to create a capsule of narratives for the audience. The work portrays a raw, exciting fusion of historical moments from the emotional to the ecstatic – an insight into the trials of war, and a homage and celebration of those who fought, and those who were left behind.

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