In one of the stories that make up Althea Theatre’s One Last Thing (For Now), a British soldier serving in Afghanistan asks his friend: if he didn’t come back, what would be the last words his fiancée at home had heard from him? And would they be enough?
The power of words – both shared and withheld – is a theme running through the show, which was devised with the company by director Lilac Yosiphon, and brings together stories of lives and loves touched by conflict across the world and across history. An American husband can’t tell his wife the truth about the war and its effect on him. A woman from Colombia struggles to master the English language so she can plead for help for her husband, who’s been kidnapped by FARC guerrillas. A French wife and mother can’t escape the words written to her by a German soldier years before, and a teacher from Israel sets one of her students an assignment that proves to have a surprising significance for them both.
These are just a few of the many plotlines skilfully interwoven throughout the show, each introduced by a different company member and returned to later as each story unfolds and develops. The international nature of the stories requires a range of accents and even languages from the cast of eight (Josephine Arden, Sam Elwin, Carolina Herran, Cole Michaels, Katerina Ntroudi, Tom Shah, Elizabeth Stretton and Thomas Wingfield), and both they and dialect coach Laura Keele deserve a lot of credit for their almost flawless delivery, and easy transitions from one to the next.
And it’s not just accents that change; each cast member takes on more than one significant role in the show, juggling comedy and tragedy with equal skill, but even with no introduction there’d be no problem telling the very different characters apart. It’s hard to choose favourites amongst such a universally talented cast, so I won’t try… and to be honest, several of my personal highlights were the moments the actors formed an ensemble – moving, listening, reacting, even breathing as one. Each of these moments is carefully choreographed and staged for maximum visual impact, with the images that conclude both Acts 1 and 2 most striking.
There’s no set to speak of, though designer Elliott Squire has created a simple yet very effective backdrop made up of blank pages cascading to the floor, and the actors make creative use of a selection of items (a chair, a wooden chest, a trombone…) not to mention their own bodies, to fill in the gaps in each picture to the point where you don’t even notice what’s missing.
Though the play isn’t overtly political, it does have a few pointed comments to make about the impact of war on the individuals involved (both directly and indirectly), and on whether war is ever the answer. But there are moments that hit a little closer to home, too, like the seemingly lighthearted story of a carefree woman whose life has never been touched by conflict, or the harsh, insensitive treatment of an asylum seeker by a British journalist, who hears only what makes a good story and is deaf to her desperate pleas for help.
As in life, some of the stories in One Last Thing (For Now) end happily, others in tragedy. One has a shocking twist; some never conclude at all. There are a lot of distinct threads to this show, but combined they create a memorable and undeniably powerful portrayal of the universal human emotions that hold us all together, even in the worst of times and circumstances. Though not always an easy watch, it’s certainly an important – and recommended – one.
One Last Thing (For Now) is at the Old Red Lion until 25th March.