It’s a wholesome sort of show… to begin with. We sit in the Cavern of The Vaults and cower as if it really were the Blitz. But Bette (Leila Sykes) and Vera (Madeleine Gould) are right – we can either be scared or we can have a party. Draw on your seams, drum up some prizes for the tombola and hope you’re lucky enough to win the ginger, or the nylons. Sykes and Gould lead us in a merry dance, rousing and heart-warming tales of troupes fighting and women rolling up their sleeves, happy to muck in wherever they can and get spirits up. Along with other things…

Then the soldiers arrive. Dressed in fetching RAF uniforms, they start off with good grace and infectious energy. But the tensions brim, those between Frank (Stefan Menaul) and Tom (Pip Brignall) bubbling to the surface. There is history here that gradually reveals itself in Gould’s layered script, Tilly Branson teasing out the answers in the characterisation. Think of England is a slow burner, but it’s a clever look behind the rosy curtain of wartime camaraderie and jollity.

Vault Festival 2018 Think Of England

Pip Brignall & Matthew Biddulph (image courtesy of Ali Wright)

Think of England is a show full of gumption and chutzpah, one that also unmasks the ugliness of humanity because of the ugliness of war. We try and keep morale up while the soldiers are dropping bombs on innocent German towns, and we didn’t start the conflict by any means. But Gould’s clever script brings out the seediness of the soldiers, who think they can claim anything for their own because of their service to society. It reveals the immorality of those who seek to make a quick buck too – are Vera and Bette really all that innocent, going around the country and simply hosting tea dances?

War irreversibly changes the perception of normality, it shifts the sands of the status quo to such a point that they can never return to their previous state. That’s a realisation from sweet hearted Bette (Sykes), one that dawns on us all with startling clarity. Vera uses it to give herself a confident persona, a no-nonsense attitude and a commanding respect from the men. Gould’s performance fills us all with passion and fire, until we realise Vera’s transgressions and shady secrets. Pre-war meekness is dead, that which the soldiers, such as Tom, are trying to protect. He simply can’t let go of the requirement for women to submit – Brignall in many ways is the obvious villain of the piece. But in such a liberal audience as VAULT Festival commands, he’s got no chance of getting his point across successfully.

Vault Festival 2018 Think Of England

Madeline Gould & Pip Brignall (image courtesy of Ali Wright)

Think of England is classic, vintage and beautifully nostalgic. But it’s also a reminder that “life is a bugger for getting in the way of things”. Gould and Branson intelligently tease out such subtle interplays between all the characters that this tea dance is jam packed full of intention and subtext. Some altercations need more bite and bile, more voracious venom, to really bring home the message. Because this is war. It’s dirty and it’s low. We can choose to acknowledge that, or we can Think of England and soldier on.

 

 

★★★★☆

Think of England runs until 11 February 2018 as part of the VAULT Festival. For further information, please visit the venue website.

Click here for an interview with director Tilly Branson.