Pink Mist (Bristol Old Vic)

John Retallack and George Mann direct poet Owen Sheers’ play inspired by interviews with British soldiers

This is something really rather special. Owen Sheers' Pink Mist has already been highly acclaimed first as a radio play and then as a book where it won the Wales Book Of The Year. John Retallack and George Mann‘s propulsive production completes the triptych and the staging at Bristol Old Vic elevates it to a higher plane. "Who wants to go to war?" is the cry heard around the playground but what seems like a boy's own adventure at school soon becomes reality for three boys sent to fight in Afghanistan and the three women they leave behind.

Sheers – perhaps not surprisingly for a poet- has caught the rhythms and cadence; the sights and sounds; the taste and smell, of Bristol and it is this familiarity that takes us by the hand and then sends us unarmed right into the heart of conflict. Pink Mist is the term used for the spray of blood that turns the air to mist after bomb blasts or sniper attacks. For those who fall and those who don’t, life after the battlefield will never be the same.

Blending the evocative language with a physical equivalent and a soundscape that bleeds around the theatre this is the most visceral experience of war I’ve seen since Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down. Rather than gung-ho jingoism though, this questions and probes everything, from the authorities who ‘fatten them up’ like cattle being sent to slaughter during basic, to the boys who sign up because there is nothing better for them than shifts at Next. It doesn’t shy away from the brutalities of the battlefields, the 6’4 lad cut down to 4’2 when he loses his legs and a battalion wiped out in a blue on blue attack that would be absurd if it wasn’t so frightening. But Sheers shows that the domestic situations for these men after they return are just as brutal, as the women in their lives – wives, girlfriends, mothers – fight to keep their humanity. "Who wants to go to war?"

It draws universally fine performances from its young cast. Phil Dunster, looking like a young Tom Hardy and possessor of a similar edgy charisma is our main guide through the horrors with Alex Stedman and Peter Edwards his mates who all go to war with a sense of purpose but return as shells of their former selves. Each are thrillingly physically expressive actors, each have bright futures. For the women, Rebecca Hamilton as the girlfriend who can’t comprehend why her man will go back brings the most nuance, Zara Ramm as the mother the most heartbreak but it is the image of Erin Doherty, mouth open wide, with all the terrifying echoes of Edvard Much’s The Scream that will live longest in the memory.

The energy on press night crackled as people realised they were seeing something truly special. Standing ovations at Bristol Old Vic are still rare enough that one that lasted three curtain calls is worth mentioning. Pink Mist may be the most important play of the year. It is certainly one of the best. Surely it's destined, much like Black Watch before it, for a long afterlife ‘‘Who wants to go to war?” After watching this, the answer should be nobody.

Pink Mist runs at the Bristol Old Vic until 11 July 2015. Click here for more information and to book tickets.