Image by Dorfman Theatre

Daniel Nelson

A children’s version of the 2004 Russian school siege by Chechen terrorists in which 334 pupils and adults were killed?

Is there nothing theatre cannot attempt?

No, as Us/Them proves.

In the one-hour play at the Dorfman Theatre in London two of the children tell and act out the terrifying story of how the attackers – on the first day of school – held 1,200 people hostage in the gymnasium.

 Their telling is literal, matter-of-fact, unemotional – an approach that writer-director Carly Wijs says was taken from her son’s account of a terrorist attack in Kenya (“He handled the news factually, as a sequence of events, and without connecting it to a judgement”) and from a BBC documentary, Children of Beslan, made up of interviews with child survivors of the school horror.

Making a boy and a girl the story-tellers cuts out the dead hand of overt political comment and allows the artless but entertaining imparting of factual information, such as the details of the school layout, how the detonator was manned and the unexplained falling number of hostages, as well as underlining vivid details that would get lost in an adult account, like the embarrassment of having to take off some of your clothes in public because of the stifling heat. It also makes space for the honest observations and humour that naivety can produce, and dramatises the gulf between the crime of murdering children and children’s responses to inexplicable acts.  

The word ‘entertaining’ in the previous paragraph is not a mistake. Perhaps paying to watch a presentation about a shocking attack and focusing on praising the writing and acting is a sign of something odd in our culture. Some of the Beslen parents might think so. But it doesn’t seem like exploitation: it’s empathetic, touching, absorbing, moving. It’s an outstanding piece of theatre and a reminder of an attack that is now barely remembered in this country.

* Us/Them is at the Dorfman Theatre, Southbank Centre, Belvedere Road, SE1, until 18 February. Info: 7452 3000/


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