The Vaults, London
Take a trip back in time to the Second World War, as Anonymous is a Woman Theatre Company return with its immersive wartime tea dance, Think of England. Taking a break from the new tour, the show has been at The Vault Festival for a short run and transports events to an air raid shelter in the middle of the Blitz.
Bette and Vera find themselves underground in London during a bombing raid, and decide to liven things up (and boost people’s morale) with an impromptu tea dance. A group of Canadian pilots arrive as the girls are setting up, looking for some distractions the night before they head back to war – so they offer to help out, and even teach a few dance steps to get things going.
Vera quickly pairs up with Lt. Tom Gagnon, while a mutual affection starts to form between Bette and Cpl. Frank Lamb. But is everything as sweet and innocent as it seems?
I was lucky enough to see this show for the first time a couple of years ago when the company returned to London after an extensive rural tour; at that point it was already an extremely moving (and entertaining) piece of theatre, but it’s returned as an even more polished production.
The site-specific nature of this run allows the word ‘immersive’ to have more than one meaning, as you form a part of the action in an incredibly atmospheric and historic venue. You only have to take a quick look around while the air raid sirens blare out and you truly believe you’re back in 1940s London, sheltering from a bombing raid; the trains pounding overhead only add to the experience, providing additional sound effects.
2018 has been declared the “Year of the Woman”, and only a few days ago the UK marked the 100th anniversary of the beginning of female suffrage in this country. So it seems rather apt for Anonymous Is A Woman to take centre stage at the VAULT Festival for this particular week. Playwright Madeline Gould (who also stars in the show) has found an engaging way to tell the story of women like Bette & Vera, in as sympathetic but truthful manner as possible.
Unlike some immersive theatre, you don’t feel at all forced into doing anything if you really feel uncomfortable about it, so there’s no need to feel at all on edge going into it if you think it’s out of your comfort zone, as there is a very friendly feel to proceedings. It all adds to the entertainment factor and breaks things up a bit – a few minutes of dancing allows you to stretch your legs without the need for an interval and, when I saw it, the plane demonstration had a particularly enthusiastic front gunner.
Tilly Branson’s direction, with seating set up in the traverse, presents the play in a straightforward but never predictable way – in fact, I don’t think there is a bad seat in the house, as thoughtful use is made of the entire performance space.
No matter how well conceived a production of this nature is, it’s even more reliant on the strength of its cast; not only do they need to bring the material to life, but they must be believable in their interactions with the audience in order to make them part of the story too. You are in safe hands with this group of actors, some of whom being involved in previous runs of the show is an added bonus.
Stefan Menaul is very likeable as the naïve, genuine Frank, in stark contrast to Pip Brignall’s sniping Tom (a bit of a cad with a hefty chip on his shoulder). Matthew Biddulph brings an air of authority to Lt. Bill Dunne – he may be Gagnon’s equal in terms of stripes, but it’s clear who is in charge here. Leila Sykes and Madeline Gould are a wonderful pairing as Bette and Vera, seemingly chalk & cheese but very firmly bonded. Gould’s Vera is no-nonsense, but not without feeling, whereas Sykes gives Bette an innocence & insecurity that endears her to the audience.
My verdict? An unforgettable experience that transports you back to war-torn London with ease, crafted & performed to perfection – the show of the festival so far.