Though set in Mostar and straddling the Bosnian war of the early 90s, Igor Memic’s striking debut play focuses more on love than conflict. It’s an achingly romantic, Balkan Romeo and Juliet story, at times very sensual. Memic’s non-observant Muslim heroine and dorky, nomically Catholic, half-Croat hero barely consider their differences until war smashes the town’s air of cosmopolitan tolerance.
Memic, writing about the hometown he left aged two, has a gift for character and atmosphere, as well as a mild tendency to overwrite and overstretch a point. He nonetheless brings a too-easily forgotten atrocity - which happened in the heart of Europe less than 30 years ago - to life more vividly than an overly political writer might.
His script won theatre company Papatango’s New Writing Prize, an increasingly trustworthy badge of honour, in 2020. Selma Dimitrijevic’s production has a beguiling, almost conversational intimacy, which makes the slide into violence all the more shocking.
The title refers to Stari Most, the destroyed Ottoman bridge that became a metaphor for the war, and which bears quite a lot of symbolic weight here. It’s there in 1988 that Saffron Coomber’s sparky Mina sees Dino Kelly’s Mili, a blow-in from Dubrovnik, effortlessly trounced by locals in the annual diving competition.
She and her friends Leila and Sasha adopt him and in the small hours a spark develops as she leads him over the bridge. Theirs is a world of coffee shops and pop music, illicit booze, fags and bacon, where ethnic differences are acknowledged but largely irrelevant. These past events are assessed as they unfold by an older, more rueful Mina (Susan Lawson-Reynolds), now known as Emina and wearing a headscarf. The affair continues to simmer behind her, heightening the sense that we’re eavesdropping on the couple.
Their mocking, slyly enthralled relationship is wholly convincing (though it helps that the two leads are frankly gorgeous). The wider dynamic between the four friends also rings true. Leila (Rosie Gray) is the deadpan foil to her effervescent friend, slouchy in boots and a Clash t-shirt. The sarky, spiky façade of Emilio Iannucci’s Sasha hides a solid core of loyalty. You care about these characters. The actors use what sound like their own accents, emphasising that this tragedy could happen anywhere.
The bridge is evoked through a set of flat platforms, but the space is shaped more by lighting designer Aideen Malone, as blasts and muzzle flashes shred the air. The piece comes to a heartbreaking conclusion… and then goes on for another 20-odd minutes of meandering epilogue. This isn’t a perfect play by any stretch – a narrator is a clunky device, for one thing. But it is a remarkably assured debut, shot through with ardour and pain, recalling history that’s recent and raw.
Bush Theatre, to 20 Nov; bushtheatre.co.uk