Anonymous Is A Woman Theatre Company have been touring Madeline Gould’s Think Of England for the past couple of months, and recently brought it to London for four performances in the build-up to Christmas.
It is a piece of immersive theatre, but not like any I’ve experienced before. Bett & Vera’s wartime work is to throw tea dances for Allied soldiers before they head off to fight, to make sure they go into battle feeling more content & less apprehensive – but is it quite as innocent as it first appears?
The girls are entertaining some Canadian pilots on the night we join them. Everyone in the audience is treated like a guest at the do – they even get the opportunity to learn some basic jive moves when the men offer to teach Vera & Bett. A few minutes of organised chaos ensues (depending on how capable the dancers are!), accompanied by a wonderful swing band. These interactive moments come at ideal times in each act, so they don’t detract from the story being told – as well as giving the audience a chance to stretch their legs, and feel like they’re well & truly involved. It’s also quite cleverly conceived so that more self-conscious folk might be more willing to join in, with everyone up & dancing at the same time and the cast mingling throughout. A cosy, friendly atmosphere is created that makes everyone feel comfortable to get involved.
It runs for a little longer than expected; it could probably be tightened up here & there, however the number in attendance likely has an effect on the running time in the interactive sections. The way the truth about the get-together is teased out over the course of the show is clever, with a particularly marked tonal change between the two acts. The story is based on actual events, which makes it all the more surprising when the reality is revealed.
During the tour the company have performed in a variety of rural locations, and London’s Tanner Street venue certainly looked the part inside. Set up effectively in the traverse, with tables along each side and the drama unfolding in the middle. Replica leaflets from the Second World War are left on the tables; a nice touch that’s also a good reminder of the era in which you are about to be immersed.
What really makes this work as an engaging & entertaining show is its cast. The company’s aim is to tell female-centric stories, and this is done effectively by Leila Sykes & Ashlea Kaye as Bett & Vera – they really do seem like they’ve been friends for years, with their natural ease and chatter. Kaye brings a vibrancy to Vera, the more outgoing of the two, whereas Sykes’ Bett is more shy and is endearing as she develops feelings for one of the officers.
Jack Collard as Corporal Frank Lamb starts out all bluster, showing off as the rookie pilot, but there’s only so long he can shake off jibes from Lieutenant Tom Gagnon (Pip Brignall) and when he finds out the real nature of the tea dance Collard’s reaction is moving, particularly as Frank had earlier asked Bett if they could write to each other during the war. Brignall’s Gagnon is the antagonist of the piece, continually winding Frank up, however they do touch on a bit of a back story that could go some way to explaining this – rather than it being out of sheer spite. Either way, Gagnon is certainly charming and an intriguing character. Bill Dunne is also a lieutenant (played by Samuel Warren), but shows the most authority and is a generally likeable character; his dancing instructions (forcing Frank to help) is a rather memorable moment!
My verdict? An informative as well as entertaining show, shining a light on the different roles women played during World War Two – a talented cast create an intimate world that you’re only too happy to become a part of.