The ensemble of Althea Theatre’s One Last Thing (For Now) seems particularly good at listening. One character reads a letter aloud, or writes one, or sends a Skype message, and the rest of the cast leans in, anticipating together, gasping together, trading knowing looks and little laughs.

The stories, many based on real letters both decades-old and contemporary, collected here by the masterful playwright-director Lilac Yosiphon and her gung-ho group of young performers, deserve a careful listen. These wartime tales of love and loss play with tropes that seem at first familiar (with the exception of one rather macabre dismemberment-themed fairy tale) but Yosiphon’s sometimes dark, sometimes amusing script persistently defies easy expectations; avoiding straightforward tragedy, happy endings, or unabashed catharsis in favour of a worthier and muddier complexity.

Yosiphon choreographs the ensemble’s energetic storytelling with both boundless inventiveness and straightforward simplicity. The cast, which skilfully tackles a variety of languages and accents, successfully breathes as one and moves as one. But a few individual moments stand out as particularly subtle and rich: Carolina Herran is heartbreaking as a South American refugee in London, fervently trying to rescue her kidnapped husband while seeking asylum; a narrative strand involving the Skype voicemails sent between a soldier (Cole Michaels) and his wife (Josephine Arden) blooms movingly throughout the play, but it is Sam Elwin, as the soldier’s earnest bunker mate, urging his compatriot to record a final video for his wife, just in case, who registers most potently.

Elwin and Katerina Ntroudi are also charming as two strangers waiting at an airport for their loved ones to return from the trenches. Thomas Wingfield, Josephine Arden, Tom Shah, and Elizabeth Stretton round out the gifted company. (There’s also lovely underscoring composed by Angus McRae.)

As rich and surprising as many of these storylines turn out to be, the play could shave off a good half an hour (and probably lose the interval) without giving up its reassuringly measured pace. Sometimes less is more: a carefully crafted arc about an Israeli high school student (Wingfield) and the English teacher (the warmly dignified Arden) who pushes him to think beyond the army should be the play’s most moving storyline, but the political debate, which sounds less convincing than most of the play’s artful dialogue, ends up with too much stage time, ultimately undermining the story’s power.

One Last Thing (For Now) burns brightest when both the love letters and the framework of wartime serve as entry points for the play’s broader investment in shared humanity. There’s plenty to say about the impact of war, and Yosiphon says quite a bit, but One Last Thing (For Now) shifts from merely compelling to hauntingly beautiful in the moments when context fades away and two individuals simply look at each other. We don’t need explosions or Skype calls or historical background to understand what’s happening in these exchanges – it’s just two people trying to reach out, but it’s somehow magical.

One Last Thing (For Now) is playing at The Old Red Lion until 25 March.

Photo by Headshot Toby