REVIEW! Spitfire Sisters @ The Space Theatre

Written by Three of a Kind (Doc Andersen-Bloomfield, Catherine Comfort and Heather Dunmore)
Directed by Adam Hemming
Produced by Grace Chapman
2 – 6 July 2019

Attaboys. That was the affectionate name given to pilots of the ATA, the Air Transport Auxiliary, a civilian organisation set up during World War II to ferry aircraft between factories and military sites, thereby freeing up RAF pilots for front line service. Except that many of the “boys” were women, who joined because, unlike with the RAF, they could be accepted into the ATA regardless of gender, age or disabilities.

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Faye Maughan (Phyllis Griggs). Photo courtesy of Liz Isles

Spitfire Sisters tells the as-yet little-known stories of several of these women, following their daily lives at the airbase, awaiting their assignments under the constant threat of air raids, doing their best to live in a country torn by war. It follows a year in their lives during the war as they navigate their way through a society where they were not only largely invisible, but also actively put in harm’s way: women were only allowed to fly if they did so without instruments. Considered too unskilled to learn how to use the same tools as men, they were given a compass and a map, and nothing else.

The background of the fight for gender equality, with women dealing with the same problems and dangers as their male counterparts while having to prove their worth every step of the way, is unfortunately a familiar one to this day. The struggle is depressingly real, and so are the women’s attitudes towards it, from unwavering dedication to the cause, to complete indifference, to casual interest, to a resigned acceptance of their status.

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Photo courtesy of Liz Isles

The script shines in how it portrays the diversity of voices and backgrounds of these women, who joined out of a need to find freedom from social constraints, to prove their self-worth to themselves and others, to follow a bright-eyed fascination with machines, to flee a home that had no place for them, to create a better life for themselves, to fight for their country and find closure to the traumas of the war.

Their love of flying is the common ground, as all-encompassing as the rumble of the Merlin engines. The top notch quality of the cast, who are absolutely believable in their individual portrayals and in their relationships to one another, brings this to the foreground, and ties the otherwise loose story together. The scenes when all the women are together, either celebrating rare moments of respite or mourning yet another unthinkable loss, felt genuinely joyous and/or heart-wrenching. Every emotion here is layered, from blind devotion and self-sacrifice, to self preservation and independence, carefree affection, quarrels and rivalries between friends, lovers, colleagues, superiors. Mary Roubos stands out as the vivacious Georgia, while Chloe Wade’s Jessie combines fierce determination with genuine compassion.

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Ali Shinall (Cornelia Wood). Photo courtesy of Liz Isles

Unfortunately, the powerful moments make the less effective parts of the script conspicuous in comparison. The scenes featuring the only male character felt particularly weak, his coarse manner and outbursts a jarring contrast to the women’s nuanced portrayals. Perhaps this was on purpose, but it felt unnecessary. Finally, the aesthetic choice of having the cast smoke on stage may have helped to create an accurate atmosphere, but it made my head and lungs ache as much as the poignant scenes made my heart ache. I didn’t notice any warning in the programme about this involuntary audience immersion, and it is something that should be flagged for future performances, for asthmatics and non-smokers like myself.

Ultimately, these are stories that deserve to be known, told in a way that shows genuine care and enthusiasm for the source material. Take it from a female aviation enthusiast who grew up being told that women don’t have what it takes to become pilots! However, even if you don’t fall in love with the sound of an engine, you will find something here to delight you.

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Previous review: Kill Climate Deniers by David Finnigan @ The Pleasance Islington

Programme B, The One Festival @ The Space

9 January – 27 January

The One Festival – Programme B

 

One Festival – Programme B

 

Recently, I had the pleasure of attending an evening of plays at the One Festival currently playing at the Space in Canary Wharf. I saw Programme B, a night of short, darkly comic pieces, all written and performed by women. Though the pieces feature four very different characters in very different situations, there is an overarching impression of being at a sort of confessional. We’re seeing all of these characters in moments of brutal, revealing honesty, and hearing them say things they can’t say in their normal lives.

 

Perfect by Rachael Claye, performed by Carianne Dunford
Directed by Danielle McIlven

In Perfect, a drunken substitute storyteller (Carianne Dunford) tells a group of children (the audience) a thinly veiled tale of depravity and greed. At lights up, we are greeted with the familiar sight of colourful plastic children’s furniture. But the warm feelings of childhood familiarity quickly dissipate as we get to know our storyteller. By framing us, the audience, as children entrusted to the care of the librarian, writer Rachael Claye and director Danielle McIlven create a sense dread as we come to realise just how honest our narrator is going to be. As the ensuing tale of sex, revenge and fairy-tale trickery unfolds, we begin to feel more and more like children seeing something they don’t really understand but somehow know is wrong. Dunford, Claye and McIlven have done an admirable job of reminding us what it might have felt like if, when we were children, we were to see an adult in a moment of inappropriate and uncomfortable weakness. Perfect is small, strange and intimate, like a flash of a long-suppressed memory.

 

Motherland written and performed by Naomi Joseph
Directed by Ellie Simpson

By contrast, Motherland feels big. Writer and performer Naomi Joseph paints a vivid picture of a young English/Indian woman’s day at a rugby match: we hear the crowd, we see the stadium, we meet all the different characters between the station and her seat. But beyond the day itself, we are shown how sports acts as a nexus of family, sex, race, death and, above all else, identity. As Naomi shares with us this great web of connections with intelligence and humour, we are shown a portrait of a young person staking a defiant claim to their identity. In giving us a snapshot of Naomi’s life, we are shown how constant that fight for identity is. She must reaffirm her Englishness to the man searching bags at the gate, assert her ability to keep up with her brother and her father, even defend her own name to the guy at the pasty shop. She meets every encounter with wit and strength, and crafts an unassailable case that she has as much a right to call herself English as anyone else in that stadium. It is her motherland, after all.

 

It’s Not a Sprint written and performed by Grace Chapman
Directed by Rachael Black

If Motherland shows us a young woman who is mature beyond her years, It’s Not a Sprint does quite the opposite. Grace Chapman plays Maddy, a woman who is celebrating her 30th birthday by running a marathon, and seemingly also by running away from all her problems. It’s Not a Sprint is full of wonderful surprises and twists, which I will be careful not to spoil. I will say that it’s hilarious, and deeply touching, and absolutely worth seeing. Chapman plays and writes Maddy with wit and love, as she goes on a journey that is oh so much more difficult than simply running twenty-six miles. It’s Not a Sprint explores and celebrates the challenges of learning to change, in all their painful glory. With this piece, Chapman and director Ellie Simpson have crafted a moving and funny piece about how growing up often has very little to do with age, and more to do with the decision to just keep going.

 

A Sweet Fade written and performed by Charlotte Powell
Directed by Orlando James

A Sweet Fade, the final piece of the evening, is striking in its authenticity, energy, and passion. Writer and Performer Charlotte Powell plays Abby, a barber as sharp and bright as her scissors. In many ways A Sweet Fade feels like a love letter, a love letter to barbering, to men, and to women, particularly those working in male-dominated trades. Abby is a beautifully drawn character, and it’s so easy to get completely lost in her funny stories and poetic insights. But underneath her charm and intelligence is a woman in struggle, desperately fighting for the freedom and respect she has earned, but held back by the misogyny of the men around her. A feelingly drawn piece, about pride and love and work, I recommend it heartily.

 

Overall, I was very impressed by what I’ve seen so far of the One Festival, and am looking forward to seeing more. Programme B, which seems to be an evening built around women in moments of darkly comic confession, was a moving, entertaining and enlightening experience. Though the pieces are short, and can occasionally feel a little bit rough around the edges, overall I find Programme B to be a very successful set of plays and a diverting and intimate evening of theatre.

 

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Tickets

 

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