The play starts relatively serenely as an innocent child, Joan, tells her aunt, Harper, that she cannot sleep. She has heard a person scream, but Harper tries to reassure her that there is nothing to be scared of, making up potentially more acceptable reasons for both the noise and the other distressing events Joan has seen outside. Joan is not convinced, however, and her continued examination brings out the horrific truth.
We move forward to see a grown up Joan and a young man, Todd, making extravagant extraordinary hats in a stark mechanical factory. Again, the initial appearance of two young colleagues, joking and even flirting, moves to a more sinister realism as we discover the use of the hats in the Parade.
The final scene re-unites the three characters seeking safety in the middle of a devastating war, in which every country, species and even element, has taken sides and been ‘recruited’. The dialogue by now has become quite disjointed and surreal.
Perhaps the brevity of the play emphasises the differences from the first to last scenes, and exaggerates the horror of the war; but it just seems all too quick, and does not allow there to be sufficient development in the characters or the journeys they have experienced. It's difficult to have much empathy for them, as we never really get to know them and their relationships, and personally I would prefer an extra 40 minutes to fill in some of the gaps.
However, the acting and production is wonderful. Annette Badland (such an apt surname) is tremendous, her steely stare admirably showing her frightened, but strong, character. Nell Bailey plays young Joan in the opening scene with innocence and honesty. Cara Horgan (older Joan) and Tristan Sturrock (Todd) are equally convincing, completing a very strong cast
The atmosphere in the auditorium was marvellously tense, so full credit to Christopher Shutt the sound designer, who provides superbly haunting sound effects; from eerie bird song to abrasive clanking of the steel wall of the factory. Simon Godwin, as director, also manages to introduce both subtle moments - such as the transition between the first two scenes - as well as, by contrast, the brutal Parade, incorporating those fantastically designed hats.
Far Away runs until 9 June at the Bristol Old Vic, and each night is followed by a short discussion with guest speakers, which will no doubt bring forth a variety of interpretations of the missing pieces of the jigsaw!
- Julian Arney