Skip to main content

Home Culture Culture Film & TV

Review | ‘Us/Them’ at the National Theatre

By Will Stroude

On 1 September 1, 2004, armed Chechen rebels stormed a school in Beslan, North Ossetia, Russia, taking approximately 1,200 adults and children hostage. The siege lasted three days and ended with more than 330 killed, including 186 children, and more than 700 people wounded. How can such atrocities be presented on stage? Well, Brussels-based company BRONKS attempts exactly that – and the result is completely original, unbelievably unique and almost unbearably powerful.

Two children, a boy and a girl, played by Gytha Parmentier and Roman Van Houtven, take us through the events of those three days. It’s as if they have been asked to do a classroom presentation or perform a show-and-tell for us, their fellow classmates. They use chalk outlines to show the layout of the school, yards of string become trip wires and sensors, balloons become bombs, and a single wooden box centre stage becomes a detonator.

All this is done with a childish enthusiasm and energy that is utterly compelling; they giggle, argue, compete, laugh, sing and dance, all with an infectious delight at being centre stage. The darker elements are deeply unsettling to our adult minds yet contrast sharply with the child-like innocence of the two characters on stage.

Telling the events of the three-day siege solely through a child’s gaze is what makes this production so special. It’s done without over-dramatisation or interpretation; there’s no judgement or attempt to make sense of it, just an honest matter-of-fact recalling of events that’s free of emotion and feeling. The characters deal with their trauma as only children can – with a frankness, honesty, playfulness and imagination that is deeply affecting.

The two performers are hypnotising in their physicality – they run, leap and hurl themselves around the stage with wild abandon, and subsequently a few lines are lost. However, this only remains true to the spirit of a children’s show-and-tell, as does the occasional awkward and unpolished moment.

To stage a production that is a fitting tribute to such horror while being suitable for both adults and children alike is extraordinary. The fact that it also has the power to make us laugh, smile and move us deeply is nothing short of incredible.

Rating: 4/5

Us/Them plays is at the National Theatre in London until 18 February. For tickets click here or call the box office on 020 7452 3000.

For more great deals on tickets and shows, visit

Words by Matthew Hyde

More stories:
Sydney is having its biggest party of the year – WIN flights for two!
Exclusive | Boys strip down to their designer briefs for Attitude