Beyond The Frontline @ Lowry Theatre, Salford

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Slung LowIdeas and ambition. Execution and conviction. Crack both and you have your hands on the theatrical Holy Grail.

Or do you?

Most productions achieve something if they deliver one half of the bargain. Neo-dramatists, Slung Low see things a little differently, as their new war-themed outdoor production, Beyond The Frontline, aptly illustrates.
Theirs is an ambition to deconstruct the conventions of theatrical production. Graspable ideas are jettisoned in favour of loosely-strung concepts and polymorphous, non-linear narratives; and the lines between theatricality and reality are left intentionally blurred.

From the very off, the idea is to grab you by the scruff of the neck. Britain is under attack. Salford is one of many military posts stationed across the country. The audience sits in a large tent outside the main theatre. We take the role of UN Inspectors tasked with documenting the goings on within the barracks to an anxious and skeptical nation.

It all seems pretty plausible as a brusque, and believable army sergeant briefs us. Everyone wears headphones for “reasons of security and to keep the peace.” It successfully hikes up the sensory assault. And then the room is plunged into darkness and a confusing patchwork of soldiers’ stories is streamed into our ears. It’s a clever way of demolishing ego and heightening tension, and it becomes harder to discern whether we’re actually inspectors or being held captive. But then that’s the idea, right?

With lighting restored, we are shepherded out in four groups. We’re told that each group should expect a different experience. An army officer leads our group outside. As we stand taking instruction, an enormous fireball (yes, a real one) and a volley of tracer ammunition lights the Salford sky. The officer barks “Get Down! Get down!” We get down. At this stage, with hearts beating quite a bit faster, we’d be doing anything we were told.

Next stop: the safety of an army truck. Phew. We sit facing each other, waiting for our next hit of adrenaline. Except it never arrives. Instead, we’re given a slow, psychological battering. A soldier, hitherto hidden under a white sheet, emerges and begins a mentally exhausting monologue. His life as a soldier, the high times, the lowest times and his eventual death are uncovered as series of disconnected spoken memories. With nowhere to look and nowhere to hide, it is by turns distressing and claustrophobic. A group of battered minds leaves the truck, looking forward with far less enthusiasm to the show’s final episode.

With headphones now removed, we walk into what looks like a medical tent. We’re invited to listen to more soldier’s stories audible in the pillows of various empty hospital beds. Again, the emphasis is on the human being behind every soldier and the grim reality of war – even if, by this stage, that notion has been rammed home. Again, that’s the idea.

The final set piece is easily the most affecting, but also the most disjointed. Young nurses buzz around the tent, restlessly tidying beds and occasionally chatting to the audience. Then, with all the groups united again, we become part of what could be loosely described as a synchronised bed dance. Cue a few raised eyebrows.

With beds rearranged the nurses begin a moving, if slightly incongruous, requiem for the dead, led by a solo violinist and a soprano. The nurses leave the tent as a single-file funeral march. It’s moving, it’s unpleasant, and it’s all-too-familiar.

Ultimately, Beyond The Frontline seems unsure if it’s a thrill ride or a head fuck. It aspires to be both, but ultimately, it exists somewhere in between the two. In a similar fashion to Punchdrunk’s political satire-come-shlock horror It Felt Like A Kiss, Beyond The Frontline attempts to psychologically submerge its audience with realism and surrealism.

It feeds it a barrage of challenging ideas, dismantles its mental fortitude and then goes for emotional overkill. There’s so much going on that some elements are close to being unintelligible, while other elements are a little too unsubtle. A victory of ambition over execution? Maybe. The grim, disarming truth is that it might just be too real for comfort.

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