Tag Archives: Second World War

“The Zero Hour” by Andrew Quick and Pete Brooks

at Warwick Arts Centre, Friday 8th February 2013

The first ten minutes of Imitating the Dog’s The Zero Hour seem incredibly promising. What looks like a safety curtain covers the front of the stage, until a shutter in the middle and about a third of the way up opens to reveal a window onto two individuals. Onto the safety curtain, a projection then appears of two people we are looking at (streamed live from two cameras on stage), so that the ‘real’ scene becomes an advent-calendar window in the larger picture (soon, two windows open either side of this central one, giving a widescreen window onto this world). Jeremy Peyton Jones’ cinematic music begins playing, and dates are shown of where and when we are – Berlin, 1945. Onto another curtain behind where the actors stand is projected an office backdrop. The scene ends almost as soon as it begins, and for the next ten minutes an enchanting sequence is played out as credits roll past.

That’s the opening. It’s engaging, innovative and beautifully executed. You get that tingly sensation at the back of your spine that you could be about to witness something really special.

Until you realise that this is pretty much all that happens for the next 80-odd minutes. Scene after scene after scene runs by, with a film director shouting “Action”, “Cut” and “Thank you” at the beginning and end of every take. The piece takes on a kind of Beckettian quality, for coupled with a hypnotic soundtrack the actual events of these scenes become very difficult to understand.

When it comes down to it, the show’s main fault lies in the actual content of Andrew Quick and Pete Brooks’ text, which – in a roundabout way – tells the story of Harry Kellerman (a spy in Berlin towards the end of the war) and various other Russians and Germans he comes into contact with. At its heart is a love story between Harry (Adam Nash) and his sweetheart Amy (Anna Wilson-Hall), but this is easily lost amidst the repetition and sprawling storyline.

The thing is, I think it would be hard enough to digest this story on its own even without the paraphernalia around it. But when we’re focussing on how the moving backdrop doesn’t actually make it look like the actors are walking, or trying to read the subtitles and captions, the staid, unimaginative dialogue is the last thing we want to focus on. The final scene seems to suggest things have been more complex than we’d previously imagined, but is difficult to make sense of.

It’s hard to tell how many things went wrong with cues during the performance I attended; I’m pretty certain at times that the dates and locations on the projection weren’t matching up with the scenes, though the lack of clarity in the text makes this hard to ascertain.

The central premise of the production is incredibly strong, and video designers Simon Wainwright and Andrew Crofts have done a rather incredible job, but it just hasn’t been used to its full potential; there’s so much more room for theatrical storytelling which is just never explored. At one point, for example, the cameras were accidentally left off so that all we could see was the widescreen window and the actors behind it, and for that moment it was easy to focus on what was happening. For the first time in the entirety of the piece, we had drama and knew what to look at.

For all its bells and whistles, The Zero Hour just never lives up to its promise, and the novelty soon wears thin. The fact that actors perform in a nether-zone between film and theatre also doesn’t help, and though the music is nice enough, it quickly begins to grate. I’m aware that earlier productions by Imitating the Dog employed similar techniques and it’s certainly an avenue which should be explored further, but for this particular play it just doesn’t quite work.

“You’re Not Like The Other Girls Chrissy” by Caroline Horton

at Warwick Arts Centre, Thursday 10th March 2011

One of the best things that can happen for a writer is surely to find a real life story which can be adapted to a stage play. It must be even better when you are able to speak to those involved. It must certainly be a godsend for Caroline Horton, then, that her own grandmother had her own extraordinary story, which became the basis for You’re Not Like The Other Girls Chrissy, a beautifully touching tale of how one woman struggled on during the Second World War away from her fiancée.

The piece begins with Horton entering the stage, gabbling in French with four suitcases in hand. She notices us, makes a few jokes about English and queueing and we’re hooked. She begins her fascinating story, telling us what brings her to the Gard du Nord on this day in January 1945. It is a story of love and loss and is all the more poignant considering these events bought the extraordinarily Caroline Horton into being. Some of the most moving moments are seen at the end of the show as we see images of Horton and Chrissy together, including voice-overs from our hero herself. This is a story that lives in the heart of the writer.

Horton’s script, although based in real interviews and a true story, is almost poetic in its telling. She claims she “never exaggerates”, but we know a lot of what is told is embellishment, as happens with all story-telling. The text is carefully nuanced, as the narrator gets her idioms mixed up, expressing how she felt like “the knees of the bees” and “a hot cat on a roof”. There are a few jokes for the history buffs in the audience and a basic understanding if French is required to understand some lines, but this simply adds to the reward when we work out what is being said.

The four suitcases and handbag act as the only set, each containing within them intricately constructed miniatures and objects from Chrissy’s life in order to aid our understanding. Inside one is hidden a charming 3D pop up of Paris which lights up to display the city at night. Touches like this serve to make the show even more touching and we see briefly inside the head of Chrissy; how she sees the world during the war is far different from how the media has portrayed it to us.

Although You’re Not Like The Other Girls Chrissy is directed by Omar Elerian and Daniel Goldman, the show is undoubtedly Horton’s. She takes us on a journey and displays an alluring erratic tendency which it is hard to divert our attention from. Her cheeky smile, glowing eyes and eccentric energy make the character unbelievably human. One wonders whether this performance would be as effective without the family links, and although it wouldn’t be quite as moving, it would still nonetheless be a superb piece of theatre.

“Goucher’s War” by Daniel Jamieson

at Warwick Arts Centre, Tuesday 8th March 2011

I don’t envy publicity officers, having to write blurbs for advertisements months before a show opens. In the publicity for Goucher’s War, the play is described as “darkly comic”, which the final production does not seem to be at all. However, although many of the comic elements are hard to place, under the direction of Nikki Sved Theatre Alibi have nonetheless created a beautifully dark piece of storytelling.

Before the Second World War begins, the peaceful Reverend Donald Goucher writes stories about Hiawyn, a mischievous pig who plays pranks on all and sundry. During the war, however, Hiawyn is commandeered by the British military, and Goucher is asked to write stories placing the pig behind enemy lines. As the war continues, Goucher’s wacky ideas for explosive shaving brushes and deadly Chianti bottles are made true by teams of scientists for use on French soil, the guilt of which drives our hero into madness. It is a story of the power, and by extension the destructive power, of the imagination.

What makes Goucher’s War stand out is that it is essentially total theatre in a studio space, incorporating music, small pieces of movement and animation. To show Hiawyn’s antics, short films animated by Tim Britton are projected onto a back wall, narrated by the cast, allowing us to see the character in action. The score, created by Thomas Johnson and played by Finn Beames, lends itself perfectly to the script, including some jolly accordion sections and theramin-induced warbling. Trina Bramman’s set resembles something out of a Wallace and Gromit film and is playful in its childishness. Mention should also be made of Marcus Bartlett’s lighting design which lights both set and actors to make them look how we expect the 1940s to have looked.

The cast of three is consistently strong. In the male roles, Derek Frood is straight-backed and military, speaking in gruff tones, while Jordan Whyte as the women in the script offers a contrast, switching in front of our eyes from young scientist to fragile old woman. As the eponymous Goucher, Michael Wagg holds the piece together and portrays his character’s downfall with sensitivity and pathos.

Although Goucher’s War isn’t a ‘darkly comic’ play, it is still an entrancing and ingenious piece of story-telling. Even though Daniel Jamieson’s script is incredibly human, it does at times seem a little childish, even when not in story-telling mode. It is a shame the ideas of espionage and propaganda are not considered in a little more detail, but at the same time this does allow Goucher’s extraordinarily touching story to shine through.

“After The Dance” by Terence Rattigan

at the Lyttelton Theatre, Thursday 17th June 2010

After The Dance is often considered to be one of Terence Rattigan’s ‘lost’ plays, having only seen one London run in 1939, but its revival here comes at a somewhat pertinent time. The original run was cut short by the Second World War, but the tension of the coming storm can be seen clearly throughout. Thea Sharrock’s remarkable revival of the play at is at once moving and thought-provoking.

Admittedly, the idea of going to see a ‘well-made’ play is not a notion that necessarily fills one with an overwhelming excitement. The plot of After The Dance is heavily contrived and predictable, and yet this seems only to add to the excitement felt as we experience it. David and Joan Scott-Fowler, played by Benedict Cumberbatch and Nancy Carroll respectively, are of an age that remembers the first war but were not old enough to partake in any action. They pretend to be “bright young” people, but continue to wallow in their sorrows without noticing they have any. When the young Helen Banner (the waif-like Faye Castelow) arrives, she diverts David’s attention away from his wife and his alcoholism and their love affair drives the play towards its horrific conclusion.

Throughout, we see a generation that has lost touch with reality and live in a fantasy world, only caring for themselves. As today, we see people who have not experienced war and yet seem to be running the country, becoming complacent and not understand the damage they are doing as we hurtle headlong towards what is inevitably a tragic ending. Within the play, we see the two sides of youth. Helen is naïve, short-sighted and stubborn, not understanding the consequences of youth. Whilst she represents an idealised version of youth for older generations, Peter Scott-Fowler (David’s cousin) is hardworking, astute and seems to hold hopes for the future. The sooner older generations realise that being “a bore” is not a bad thing, the quicker we will resolve our problems.

Although Rattigan’s script is strong, the cast are the catalyst through which the emotions of the piece are carried. Cumberbatch looms over his cast members, and his piercing gaze longs for sympathy yet cannot help but cause a hatred of this dogmatic character. Carroll’s Joan is tender but shares the obstinacy of her husband. In Act Two she truly excels and solicits our attention throughout. Most astonishing is Adrian Scarborough as the Scott-Fowler’s drunken lodger, proving himself to be one of our greatest comic actors. Scarborough carries most of the laughs in the play but engenders a great humility in latter scenes, giving us the necessary compassion which his peers seem to lack.

Hildegard Bechtler’s grandiose set perfectly encapsulates the ostentation of the between-wars generation and can be both eerily spacious and buoyantly welcoming. Mark Henderson’s lighting is deceptively simple and yet does a lot to set the mood of each scene. We are constantly reminded that excess does not necessarily lead to a happy life.

Sharrock’s direction perfectly captures what we imagine to be Rattigan’s initial vision and there is no doubt that the playwright was on top form while writing this play. The frustration of youth is mirrored throughout and the impending doom always present. This production of After The Dance is beautifully created and it does not fail to move. Let us hope, therefore, that it is not doomed to the same fate that the original run was. If Rattigan has taught us anything, it is that we must learn from our past mistakes.