Clapham Omnibus, London – until 30 April 2017
You lose some, you win some: two former libraries now turned into arts centres-cum-community spaces-cum theatres plus Bunker’s Theatre takeover of an underground car park in Southwark Street. No one could say that south London isn’t teeming with theatrical enterprise. It’s heartening to see and in the past three days, all three venues have shown the creativity and enthusiasm that is alive and well in a part of London that used to be regarded as the black sheep (saving its description) of the London theatre community.
Well no more, and talking of sheep, they loom like ghosts at the feast in Victoria Willing’s Spring Offensive in what used to be the library in Old Clapham. Headed by artistic director, Marie McCarthy steadily steering them in the right direction (last year they won one of the Empty Space Peter Brook Support awards and are now being mentored by the Royal Court), it must rate as one of the most welcoming venues on the block.
Having somehow managed to leave my programme behind, how many theatres would still have someone on the end of a phone at 10pm on a Saturday night? All credit to Omnibus and McCarthy’s team and thanks to them for later sending along details.
And so to Spring Offensive, Willing’s quirky new comedy, set in a B&B on the Somme where the trade for WW1 tourism has thrown up a landlady who could have stepped straight out of EastEnders.
April has an unquenchable appetite for excitement and a patter to go with it. Spruced up in spangly top and getting ready to receive a passing band of young men, her two current residents, Pam and Tom, are also sparring if not for a fight, then at least some kind of co-existence.
That the night is about to end in explosive confrontations probably goes with the territory. But before it all ends and the sheep begin to loom large in April’s fetid imagination, Willing makes some neat points about legacy and history through Tom’s blustery `Colonel’ and Pam’s quiet pacifism as well as April’s opportunistic energy.
Grace Smart’s in-the-round set with the audience surrounding the dining table gives the action an immediate intimacy and Maggie Daniels finds just the right amount of slightly strange, retiring oddity for Pam, whilst Tony Turner is beautifully cast as a man finding a kind of identity by cashing in on the greatest military tragedy and loss of the 20th century.
Willing’s April is both horrifying and ultimately sad, a brave soul in a way hiding her own losses through bravura performance and spirit if of a brutally destructive kind.
With larger resources, Spring Offensive’s observational acuteness might become even more evident. As it is, McCarthy’s production brings out enough to make this an entertaining as well as useful alternative point of view on the `industry’ that draws so many to the killing fields of Flanders and beyond.