Falkland Sound – Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon

Reviewer: John Kennedy

Writer: Brad Birch

Director: Aaron Parsons

In the Summer of 1982, the brutal Argentine military junta declared that the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic Ocean were, by historic rights, their property as The Malvinas and landed an expeditionary occupational force. The British Government responded by sending an armada Task Force of Royal and Merchant Navy ships together with distant and close RAF air support to retake them. They succeeded, by lethal force, to restore UK sovereignty. Many lives were lost. The Junta fell. The issue of sovereignty remains to this day.

Falkland Sound is a sea strait that divides the two principal islands that make up the Falklands archipelago. The divided islands provide a subtle metaphor for the ensemble characters’ experiences. A failing marriage, the Argentinian scientist thrown into a Nationalist dichotomy, the torn, occupying Argentinian officer, at first in gloating triumph, celebrating that the children will now have to learn Spanish in school: within weeks he is issuing orders for his starving conscripts not to beg Islanders for food on pain of firing squad. It is about how stories bind individual and collective identities. A near timeless anthology, an organic, oral celebration reaching back from The Canterbury Tales to Under Milk Wood.

Brad Birch has immersed himself into relating an event that utterly changed the lives of the islanders through the means of expositional character monologue and dialogue. It takes time, a slow burner for sure, but the investment is rewarded with a kaleidoscopic tapestry of intimacy, tension and humour climaxing in the capacity of the human condition, tested beyond endurance, to come through not only as survivors but as cathartic hero/heroine champions. If there ever was a template narrative that exploits the essential Hero’s Journey aesthetic, then Falkland Sound takes the biscuit.

The cast projects a representative composite of the many islanders Birch met and interviewed. In his own programme notes he relates, ‘…it’s more about getting to the metaphorical truth of the matter.’ The people are both grounded in factual realities together with symbolic extensions of archetypal behaviours. Placements of models of town buildings are in constant flux representing the impending disintegration of societal norms and potential obliteration.

The early 80s saw the UK in political, social and financial turmoil. That Margaret Thatcher promised a Monetarism credo of ‘trickle-down’ economy enrichment meant little to the realities of Northern Ireland continued unrest, mainland strikes and city riots exacerbated by chronic unemployment.

Aaron Parsons’ direction together with designer, Aldo Vázquez’s, set realisation, creates a diorama of giant projection screens that surround the Swan thrust-stage construct. There is a nuanced, suggestive subliminal message that resonates through the use of rusting-effect corrugated iron panels: a dystopian Britain on the edge of chaos. And then war comes along and saves PM Margaret Thatcher’s bacon. Bunting, Union Flags and jingoism unfold, ‘Our Boys’ off to defend the, er, what’s that place called again, mate? The tabloid champion of truth, honour and gory glory, one certain Red-Top tabloid, is nation-wide flouncing its ‘SURRENDER’ banner when the Falkland-stationed Marines are ordered not to show resistance and surrender arms. The grotesque, ‘Gotcha’ following the controversial sinking of the Argentine warship, The General Belgrano, a new low in insensitivity not matched until the Hillsborough Disaster smears and lies.

But the resilient islanders remain defiant with True-Brit brio and pithy understatement so dead-pan it smacks in the face with a comic slap worthy of a Tom & Jerry cartoon. Caricature spiv-suited, slimy politicians and not-so-Special Advisors, with a side eye on the next election probable wipe-out, bellow out egregious sound-bites whilst preening the ego of a (surely an 18 or over Certificate?) rendition of Margaret Thatcher alive on stage in navy-blue and silver buttoned power-suit and thrusting pelvic motions, best buried deep within the darkest part of the subconscious. She pops up again later but no spoilers here.

Identity and what being British meant, the conundrum of an Empire’s last grasp and gasp of post-colonial might with lethal consequences resonate throughout the story. It is notable that, on the liberation of Port Stanley, the representative soldier, who has his own story to tell, receives no thanks. Does he stand for the universal soldier just following orders? Is he the fall guy for the chronic neglect consecutive governments showed to military investment and the perception, by the Argentine Junta at least, that The Falklands had fallen well below their, most probably, faulty radar? Or, were the Falklands, as the irascible font of all island gossip, Mrs Hargreaves, an engaging Joanne Howarth, bemoans, just an, ‘…imaginary Kingdom’? But whatever contemporary and lasting controversies might find agreement, let alone resolution, had not Margaret Thatcher ordered the Task Force, the Falklanders’ lives would be very different today, most likely being repatriated at best.

There are cheeky liberties taken in dispensing any notions of ‘fourth-wall’ integrity where the cast will nod and wink a teasing gesture to the front seats. That’s what thrust stages do – it’s in the face.

This is a crafted, snappily empathic and inclusive new writing play. The production never falters – perhaps almost never, where some personal narratives might wander but a minor niggle. The character and costume change-overs are a matter of ludicrous dexterity and execution – and those 80s wigs and padded shoulders? The horror, the horror.

Islanders hug their BBC World Service radios desperate for news. The Thatcher War Cabinet has to be credited for its utter grip on the media reporting – a lesson learned from how the Vietnam catastrophe played out on network television in America every day. One character checks himself – had Aston Villa really won the European Cup or was this just ‘Argie’ disinformation propaganda? (It wasn’t, they did, beating Bayern Munich 1-0)

Disabuse any notion of cliched sentimentality as the denouement plays out with a rousing song of celebration, a myriad of sounds, a single theme of humanity. In a society where Gen Z has grown up in a plethora of virtual, online ‘societies’ notions of true community and conversation are in danger of fractured identity and self-worth. Falkland Sound is a timely, social microcosm of resonanced imperatives: what social animals need most are themselves.

Runs until 16 September 2023

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A myriad of sounds, a single theme of humanity.

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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