‘Bonds of love and affection know no blood.’ That is the principle that envelopes this entire play – disguised as a musical – from beginning to end. In the words that start our hero’s journey, ‘the terrible temptation of kindness’ is beautifully explored by an unconventional narrative style that hides a play within a play, keeping the audience both entertained and intrigued about where both timelines are going.

Credit: Iona Firouzabadi

We start at a refugee camp. The mood is tense, and political conflicts in the ‘outside world’ are disturbing the peace between refugees. A UN representative announces they’re having a play. Cue our singer-narrator (Zoe West), who fights their scepticism and brings them together. Through a myriad of nuanced, lively and incredibly well-synced performances, we’re transported to Grusinia, the fictional country where most of the story takes place – despite the occasional break of the fourth wall to remind us that we’re watching a play within a play, and reality, although not so different from the violent imaginary world, is still there in the background. 

Grusinia is going through a war. In the middle of the conflict, Grusha Vashnadze (Carrie Hope Fletcher) finds herself carrying for the child that the deposed rulers of the country left behind. Making the most of Fletcher’s incredible vocals, we journey with Grusha through thick and thin as she does what it takes to keep the child safe.

Credit: Iona Firouzabadi

In the words of Oli Townsend, Set and Costume Designer, ‘Grusinia […] needed to feel both mysterious and familiar. It felt important to transport the audience to another place and yet we hoped to draw enough from reality.’ You have to see it to believe how true those words are. It is a world that is eccentric and mythical but feels close enough to reality in its essence that we almost instinctively absorb the core message: showing kindness to those who may be considered strangers is the most effective way to fight oppressive people and systems that damage our humanity. 

Adding to the design work, the industrial-like features in the structure of Rose Theatre’s interior fit the stage design so well that it unintentionally creates an immersive atmosphere. Those visual and narrative concepts combined with a captivating singer-narrator and musical moments involving stunning harmonies carve a show so rich it’s impossible to not feel personally involved with the culmination of such emotionally-heavy plot. As Grusha reaches the end of her journey and is challenged by the return of the birth mother, we’re presented with a sort of ‘Judgement of Solomon’ to test their motherhood claims. This is when the title of the show finally comes to life to prove there are bonds stronger than blood, stronger than beliefs, and stronger than borders.

Credit: Iona Firouzabadi

It is a very long Act I – already a shorter version of the 2-hour long Act I that preview audiences had, so I hear – and you may be left thinking it could do with a few trims here and there without compromising the story. But on the other hand, Act II works like a tonic for the somewhat tiredness that we’re left with in the interval by injecting new life in the play. Jonathan Slinger, who plays Azdak/ensemble, is to blame for most of that new energy. What a phenomenal performance, balancing the perfect amount of comedy, sorrow and hope for the world that Grusinia – and by extension, our world – has become. 

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

{🎟 AD – PR invite – Tickets were gifted in exchange for an honest review}

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