Review: Think of England, VAULT Festival

“It’s my favourite thing in the world, dancing”

It’s 1942 and Bette and Vera have scored themselves a nice commission from the War Office to tour the country hosting tea dances to boost morale of the brave men and boys fighting the Nazis. But whilst they’re hanging the bunting and handing out barley sweets, it emerges that there’s more on offer here than just dance cards and as a group of three war-weary Canadian airmen turn up for the night, unexpected emotions threaten to bubble over.

Madeline Gould’s Think of England is beautifully written and in its opening two-thirds has an absolutely gorgeous feel to it. Tilly Branson’s production has a lightly immersive nature (don’t sit on the front row if you’re shy…) which sees us as active participants sequestered in this air raid shelter with the cast. And as we’re introduced to the cast, there’s a sensitive exploration of the massive impact of the war on a personal level – the relative freedom afforded to the women who can now work, the abject terror faced by boys tasked with the enormity of fighting an actual war when they’re scarcely adults. 

None of the flirtatious nature of the evening is shirked either, as the comfort offered by close companionship in times of such danger becomes palpable right in front of our eyes. Indeed, there’s even a dance lesson midway through to instruct those willing in the seductive ways of the jive. But though much has changed in these pressured times, some things remain sadly the same as the play takes a darker turn in its final act as scandal is threatened, sexual hypocrisies exposed, the boundaries of society revealed to not have advanced that far after all.

Gould and Leila Sykes are a vivacious pair as Vera and Bette, so warm and inviting as genial hosts and bracing in their emotional honesty and vulnerability respectively.  And they’re matched with strong work from Matthew Biddulph, Pip Brignall and a beautifully nuanced Stefan Menaul as the transatlantic visitors who have each reacted to their wartime duty in significantly different ways, resulting in the tinderbox of tension that emerges here. I could have perhaps lost ten minutes from the final section to keep its intensity at its fiercest but this is impressive work from Anonymous is a Woman and a highlight of the VAULT so far for me.

Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes (without interval)
Photos: Ali Wright
Booking until 11th February


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