Theatre Review: The Great Wave Is More Of A Damp Squib

The Great Wave, National Theatre ★★☆☆☆

By Matthew Holder Last edited 15 months ago

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Theatre Review: The Great Wave Is More Of A Damp Squib The Great Wave, National Theatre 2
Photo: Mark Douet

A further reminder of the cruelties of the North Korean regime is given a tepid going over in The Great Wave, a new play by Francis Turnly that follows one family's search for the truth.

The abduction of Japanese citizens by North Korea for the purposes of training would-be assassins, should be a pretty dramatic basis for a plot mining national identity, loyalty and family bonds. When 17 year old Hanako (Kirsty Rider) goes missing during a storm near her home on the coast of Japan, her mother (Rosalind Chao) and sister Reiko (Kae Alexander) keep believing she's alive, while we witness the horrors of her fate.

There are some affecting moments as the women are shown together on stage, separated by more than just geography, with North Korea's submissive ideology a world away from modern Japan. The play does skilfully suggests that the sister left behind is as trapped in her search for the truth as the one abducted. And in Japan's diplomatic treatment of North Korea for geo-political interest (played well by David Yip), deception is nicely shown as a lingua franca common to both countries.

Yet for such strong material the play is strangely undramatic. Dialogue is flat and expository, too full of dead air. The acting is at times awkward and lacking in flow, not helped by a revolving stage that hardly keeps still and blasted by video projections and bland EDM. The story only intermittently catches fire, partly because it's a truism that North Korea is a cruel and unforgiving place, partly because it's too reasonable.

When John Wayne in the Searchers, after finding that his abducted niece has become a Comanche Indian, tries to kill her, you feel the brutal cost of his search on his soul. The Great Wave, in contrast, tells a calm history lesson when it should have made more of a roar.

The Great Wave, National Theatre, Dorfman, Upper Ground, South Bank, SE1 9PX, £15-£40. Until 14 April

Last Updated 20 March 2018