Their Finest Hour - Waterloo East Theatre
The RAF service members’ sacrifices are remembered
A family gathers after the funeral of their grandfather, a veteran, and ventures into the loft to discover more about his life. They unearth books, letters and photographs provoking memories and curiosity to learn more about his life as a Royal Air Force service member. What ensues is a comprehensive retelling of the Second World War from the RAF’s perspective. Through poetry, song and verbatim memories the ensemble cast shine a light on well known and lesser known stages of the cruel fight. From Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain right through to the Dambusters and VE Day, characters and memoirs come alive before us to celebrate and remember their service and sacrifice. This production is a labour of love for the creative team, evident in the end result. A myriad of mediums weave together to give a gripping insight into life and often death in the Royal Air Force.
Director Joe Malyan’s vision in staging this script is ambitious and inventive, finding ingenious ways to reenact dogfights, bombing runs and parachutes by utilising everyday household objects scattered amongst the set. Chairs become mounted machine guns, bed sheets mountain ranges and step ladders prison bars - all to great effect. Occasionally the space felt too busy, direction for the sake of direction, whereas a less is more approach would have benefitted several scenes generating stillness and leaving the heavy lifting to the veterans’ words. It equally felt odd to confine Patrick Lock’s character to a point at stage left for the majority of the play - though well acted his character only being relevant at the begging and end of the piece, reduced to sharing the narration instead. A better choice could have been made here.
The ensemble do a fantastic job in portraying over one hundred characters across the two hours. Tabitha Baines and Alex Cosgriff lead the vocal performances, including a sweet rendition of A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square amongst other 1940s classics. A huge variety of RAF personnel are introduced through Patrick Lock and Peter Pearson’s narration, providing essential context as we chart the war story, once again utilising the various household props and making use of Anne Thomson’s impressive costume design. Whilst there is some strong accent work from the cast, many are not up to the mark and get in the way of the storytelling. I’d argue that if an accent cannot be done convincingly and is not vital to further the plot it is better to drop it - there are creative alternate methods in representing who a character is and where they come from.
The production team have worked hard in creating a detailed, versatile space that amplifies the brutal and human stories being told. Maps adorn the walls of the attic set, with military jackets and scarves patiently waiting to be worn by the ensemble. The sound design fills the play with the bangs and crackle of warfare but it is Lyndon Baines’s lighting design that packs a punch, supporting the words being spoken. Lights flicker underneath the actors, mimicking the fires burning below the pilots. A notable highlight being the Dunkirk sequence in which Alice Moore’s character witnesses the devastation, a city ablaze, delivering a harrowing and powerful monologue supported by Baines’s design - a standout moment and performance.
The bookended premise of the production quickly feels redundant once the core of the play gets going. The personal, intimate beginning is at odds with the grander scale narrative, particularly when almost none of the performed plot involves the man whose funeral triggers the opening and closing events. I understand the desire for a concept that frames the purpose of the piece but here it does not have the desired effect and instead dilutes the focus. The strength of this production lies in the varied tapestry of verbatim, poetry and song that when combined give a rich overview of the entire RAF campaign - additional material is not necessary.
With some refocusing and further development, there is a place amongst the multitude of World War Two plays for this production, its patchwork of narratives allowing it to stand out. Careful detail has been undertaken in crafting this compilation and it would be fantastic to see it reach its potential.
Running till 26 March - Tickets
Photography - Sean Strange