Some plays are almost dual experiences in and of themselves such that, in assessing them, you almost feel like you’re really reviewing two separate works rather than one whole. That’s certainly the case with Madeline Gould’s Think of England, an interesting if occasionally bogged-down play that played last night at The Vaults’ Cavern as part of the venue’s alluring fringe theatre festival.
The story is simple enough; set in a bunker during WWII, Mancunians Vera (Madeline Gould) and Bette (Leila Sykes), have been commissioned by the war office to boost morale. When they get stuck in a bunker one night, they find themselves spending time with three Canadian air force pilots; Bill (Matthew Biddulph), Tom (Pip Brignall) and Frank (Stefan Menaul).
In the course of the evening, Vera, who is as vivacious as she is outgoing, grows close to Tom, a cocky and sexist jerk whose insensitivity stems from being subjected to the horrors of war. Meanwhile, Bette, a mild-mannered and sweet-natured young woman who sincerely cares about the war effort, grows close to Frank, an equally sweet-natured young man who seems overly bound by his constant obsession to do the right thing.
Tensions break out, however, when a drunken Tom becomes increasingly belligerent and begins to view Bette and Vera more as commodities than people, a timely theme indeed. Tensions really come to the fore when Bette betrays Vera’s trust, which forces Bill, a leader quickly losing sight of his authority, to play peacemaker.
So far as setting goes, I really did feel like I was in a World War Two bunker. Air raid sirens blast out upon walking into the cavern. The wooden benches, lined up either side of the actors, give the play both an appropriate mise-en-scène and pertinently make the audience feel a part of the action.
The very real overhead trains- which a less creative practitioner might view as merely an annoying distraction- actually adds to the allure here. Fringe theatre, as any theatre-buff will doubtless be aware, can be very hit-or-miss depending upon whether or not the venue’s limitations are embraced as a creative constraint helpful to the performance at hand. It is to the credit that the Wandering Women Writers embrace those creative constraints, and in some style.
The play equally pulls off its interactive elements with incredible finesse. That I’m saying this is no small feat, not least given my own aversion to interactive theatre as a whole. I myself have always had quasi-ethical reservations about this peculiar and relatively modern new medium, especially when the direction of the plot is to some extent reliant upon the interactivity of the audience.
Speaking primarily about a particularly dismal 1995 interactive movie entitled Mr. Payback, whereby the audience used joysticks to vote for various directions the story took, the great movie critic Roger Ebert quipped that “we [the audience] don’t want to interact with a movie. We want it to act on us. That’s why we go- so we can lose ourselves in the experience. If we’re going to have to make the choices, we ought to be paid instead of the writers.”
That last sentiment takes on an added validity when one applies it to interactive theatre since theatre tickets are – for the most part, interactive or not – exorbitantly expensive in comparison to movie tickets. Yet this play skirts around this problem with the medium in which it operates remarkably well, never asking the audience to dictate what the play will be but, rather, asking the audience to engage with the work on a slightly less placid level than they ordinarily would. This, to my mind, is interactive theatre done perfectly.
What’s frustrating is that the play often gets bogged down when scripted, especially with regards to its more would-be poignant scenes. The melodrama that results from the romances is patently unoriginal such that these sequences feel trying, as if it were an endurance test that the audience must pass before we’re allowed to see the play’s more interesting moments.
According to the website, it appears that the play is actually based on a true story. If that much is itself true, that may account for Gould’s wish to keep the play true to life and her resultant reluctance to leave some of the play’s blander dramatic scenes on the cutting room floor. Yet, even if that was the case, I do at least wish she’d found a way to spruce up the dialogue in these scenes, which is hit-and-miss at best.
Put it this way; I’m writing this review one day later and I already can’t quote to you a single line of dialogue from this play’s scripted, non-interactive sequences without referring to my notes. The best line of the night, rather prophetically, actually came from an audience member, who was obviously so immersed in one of the play’s interactive moments that he wished Bette a cheery “good luck” at just the right moment.
Fortunately, the play’s melodramatic moments do not detract too much from the play’s whole and its original moments more than compensate for those that are that bit less original. On that level, I would certainly recommend it.
I wish I could declare from a mountaintop that this is a play that never waivers in its mission to be original which, in truth, I can’t quite do yet, although only just. Yet I must emphasize that this is by no means a fatal flaw. This is simply an issue that I hope will be remedied in future as this play transfers to the bigger venue I’d love to see it in.