Monday, 12 February 2018

REVIEW: Think of England at The Vaults

Love, patriotism and women's self-determination are at the epicentre of Think of England, a play that suitably exploits one of the Vaults' tunnel-shaped performing spaces to recreate a WWII underground refuge.

Audiences are invited to the party organised by Vera (Madeline Gould) and Bette (Leila Seykes) for the soldiers based in the city, which is described by the creatives as an immersive Blitz experience of love, scandal and swing dancing. Sat along the two walls of the tunnel, onlookers are subject to what I call a "tennis-court effect", where, to follow characters talking from opposite ends, they are forced to continually rotate their heads from left to right. String this out for 110 minutes and you'll appreciate how likely it is to return home with a sore neck. A better use of the space, would have considered the opposite sides for different scenes. 

When the two women are joined by three Canadian air force officers, the drama takes a turn. Bette gets involved in a romance with the timid Corporal Frank Lamb (Stefan Menaul), whilst Vera more explicitly seduces the arrogant Lieutenant Tom Gagnon. Less relevance in the plot is given to the Lieutenant Bill Dunne (Matthew Biddulph), who pops in an out of the room before actively contributing to its unfolding.

A simulation of how a bomber plane is flown is the first attempt to get the punters directly involved, but the scene struggles to take off. More participation is encouraged in a practical demonstration of some simple jives steps, and the crowd is eager to join in. This is the only highlight in a flimsy plot that unnecessarily over shoots by 20 minutes whilst failing to make a point. 

Although much is served on the platter and despite the abundance of time, many of the topics are left undercooked. Rather than building an emotional crescendo, events are queued in a hit-and-miss rollercoaster of violence, intimate confessions and joyful interludes. There's too much rhetoric and a glut of empty statements about love, family and self-determination that should have had a more practical reflection within the plot.

The narrative feels forced and the characters lack scope, with the exception of
Menaul, whose tears stream down his face when he's called to make a hard but inescapable choice. From the moment he steps on stage he assumes the physical vulnerability and visceral dimension of his role.

Sing-along wartime motivational anthems and some Union Jack bunting were not enough to recreate the atmosphere and the impending drama of the Blitz. Likewise, audience participation may have been used as a distraction from an otherwise weak dramatisation. 

The unlikely relationships that developed during the war and women's unsung contribution to the nation deserve a much better portrayal.

Review by Marianna Meloni

Rating: ★★★
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