Writer: Polly Wiseman
Director: Gari Jones
Reviewer: Michael Gray
“Somewhere in England” – that’s as precise as the wartime censors will allow. But we’re in Suffolk, most probably – Horham is mentioned – and this is another fascinating piece of social history acted out under East Anglian skies.
Polly Wiseman’s powerful play tells of the experience of Joe Turner, a black GI who spends much of the war supporting the bomber pilots of the USAAF. He enjoys fraternising with the locals, a pint in the pub. But encounters with a woman, a girl and a prejudiced airman bring imprisonment and the threat of worse.
The drama uses seven characters – four actors – to represent a spectrum of views. It uses a simple traverse staging, a few crates, corrugated iron and bunting, to pit honesty against hatred, patriotism against freedom. At first sight, the British seem more tolerant, more liberal than the segregated US forces.
Viv, a land girl from London with a fiancé in the Merchant Navy, is chatted up by smooth-talking Chester, a suave pilot, but falls in love with Joe, encouraged by precocious 15-year-old Ginny, a local girl hoping to join the Sixth Form of the Grammar School. Amid the tensions and the traumas of warfare, relations between these four people become hopelessly, violently entangled. The knife Viv wears in her garter, the possibility of a “mongrel” baby, the constant presence of death stoke the fires of prejudice.
In the second half, we meet a journalist for Tribune, a titled lady from the WVS who will use any means to discourage inter-racial affairs – “the only victims are the offspring…”, and the fascinating historical figure of Walter White, a man of mixed race, who, as we would say today, identified as black, and was prominent in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
But the play wears its weighty themes lightly. The writing is fast-paced and engaging, often amusing, the characters rounded and human, even “the dreadful Chester”, who eventually comes to question his motivation and realise what fear and peer pressure have driven him to.
Gari Jones’s production engineers tense, powerful confrontations across the width of the stage. Ingenious dramatic shorthand has the journalist deliver the letter the same actress has just taken, as Ginny, from Joe. And he looks on from his distant cell as White peruses it.
The Swing music that brings the races together punctuates the scenes. And in his darkest hours, Joe’s fine voice sings strongly of liberty and emancipation: “Keep your Hand on the Plow and Hold On !
Four excellent actors give compelling performances in the intimate arena of a remote village hall – just such a hall as might have held the Saturday night hops where local girls begged gum and Hershey bars less than a lifetime ago.
Joshua Hayes is the conflicted Chester as well as the principled, determined Walter. Grace Osborn young, ambitious Ginny and the journalist, and Georgia Brown the tragic Viv and the bigoted Lady Reading. Nathanael Campbell is the modest, unassuming Joe – an engineer back home – whose experience stands for thousands of men of color who tasted freedom and equality a thousand miles from home.
In a moving coda, we’re back in the Suffolk cornfield where Joe and Ginny first meet, and all her silly girlish pre-conceptions fall away in seconds.
An economical, eloquent historical drama which speaks directly to Britain today, where prejudice and mistrust persist alongside liberal multiculturalism.
Touring until 4 June 2016 | Image: Mike Kwasniak