Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, London – until 23 December 2017
Just over four years ago, a war started in the Ukraine – and it’s still going, it’s just that we in the West have forgotten about it. Bad Roads by Natal’ya Vorozhbit is a much-needed reminder of what’s happening and how it’s affecting the war’s willing and unwilling participants. Across six playlets, we meet soldiers, their lovers, a headteacher and local farmers. All, in their own way, are winning and losing at this war.
On a research trip to the frontline, liberal journalist Natasha surprises herself when she falls for Sergei, a Ukrainian patriot willing to die for his country. Further behind the line, three teenage girls sit around waiting for their fighter lovers to show up, comparing their experiences and the gifts their men have given them.
At an army checkpoint, a local headmaster is threatened with detention unless he can find his passport. While on the road, an army medic mourns her dead lover but knows she has to carry on with the war.
In the disturbing penultimate playlet, a girl is locked in a basement by a soldier who brutalises her. But there’s light relief at the end of Bad Roads when a farmer couple extorts money from a well-off young woman who accidentally kills their chicken.
Across these six stories are several common themes: how people become desensitised to fighting and brutality and think only about survival and their basic needs, and how traditional power and gender roles reduce people in war zones to either strong, mostly male, fighters or subservient, mostly female, civilians, there to serve the fighters’ every need.
With these themes so strong across all six parts, it’s a shame this isn’t one whole piece, allowing characters and storylines to develop. Having said that, Vorozhbit is so good at creating uncommon and distinctive characters, and showing how they evolve as their circumstances change, that it almost doesn’t matter. The fifth story, about the girl in the basement, is a particularly skilful piece of writing, with a twist as wonderful as it is disturbing.
Although not exactly a cheerful or life-affirming night at the theatre, Bad Roads is a good show to see if you appreciate well-written characters with a sting in their tail. Or like being blown away by what can be achieved with set and lighting design in what is a relatively small performance space.