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BWW Review: OLD BRIDGE, Bush Theatre

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An award-winning play that is both funny and poignant

BWW Review: OLD BRIDGE, Bush Theatre

BWW Review: OLD BRIDGE, Bush Theatre It is too trite to remark that theatre needs new writers, but, for all the obvious reasons, we've never needed them more than we do right now.

Perhaps that's not quite right though - writers aren't the problem, as the 1,504 entries for the Papatango Prize 2020 can attest. What we need are new plays (rather a different proposition than new writers) so it's to the Prize's immense credit that it guarantees the winner a full production, publication, royalties and an unprecedented commission for a second play. (It might be good to see one of our theatrical knights front up some of their Hollywood money to give the UK a second award of this kind.) Igor Memic won in 2020 and Old Bridge is his play.

We're in Mostar, Yugoslavia in 1988 for the day of 'The Jump', when 12 young men summon the cojones to dive from the medieval bridge into the river (and then do the serious bit - swim against the currents to the surface). Mina and Leila, girlies about town, are there with the rest of the townsfolk for the spectacle and an unknown boy catches their eye. Mili, a Catholic lad from Dubrovnik, loses the competition but wins the heart of Mina, a Bosniak Muslim. In 1988, that stuff didn't matter much.

Four years later, it's a matter of life and death, as Yugoslavia tears itself apart in ethnic strife, Mostar, a town almost equally comprising Catholic and Muslim, is the epicentre of the war and Mili and Mina cling to each other and to their friends, Leila and Sasha, as the coffee runs out, the shells fall all around them and the snipers hide out in the mountains. All this, and a lot more, happened in Europe within the last 30 or so years while neighbouring nations (with one or two laudable exceptions - Tony Blair will never pay for a meal served by a Kosovan waiter for example) simply looked on.

Memic learned of the people of Mostar from his mother and grandmother and has woven their stories into a play both funny and moving. Much of the humour comes from Saffron Coomber's smartmouth comic timing as Mina, so, so in love with Dino Kelly's bronzed Adonis, Mili. They capture the energy that infuses mutual infatuation, Kelly with his goofy grin, Coomber with her irresistible urge to kiss him. We've all been there, but it's seldom caught as accurately on stage or screen as it is here.

Rosie Gray and Emilio Iannucci have a lot of fun with Leila and Sasha, the two cynics who circle each other and their friends before their sarky jibes turn dry in their throats as real life overtakes the darkest of jokes. Susan Lawson-Reynolds does well as the older Mina, narrating and explaining what happened from the perspective of today, but these passages too often turn into monologues which, for all their poignant lyricism, slow the pace when we want it to speed up.

This is a particular problem towards the end of the play when Memic is hoist a little by his own petard. Our four friends have been drawn so successfully that we are 100% invested in their fates, but the play veers off into exposition about the 'forgotten' war and the appalling risks taken by Mostar's citizens caught on the wrong side of the bridge. As a lecture, it works, but the drama is subsumed by the documentary, a rare misstep from this first time playwright.

Selma Dimitrijevic does a fine job suggesting the open space of the bridge and the tiny sanctuary of Mina's flat, much aided by Max Pappenheim's scary sound design. I'd love to see her direct an on-location screen version of this script, something the likes of Film Four should consider.

Memic has a second commission in his pocket and has shown a real aptitude for writing charismatic and credible young people. One looks forward to that next play with great anticipation - just leave the narration and exposition on the page.

Old Bridge is at the Bush Theatre until 20 November

Photo Marc Brenner


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