Reviewed – 14th November 2019
“The sadness and the poignancy are shattering, and the vocal shrapnel pierces you with countless questions”
Next year, 2020, will mark the 75th anniversary of the ending of WW2. It will be a time of reflection and remembrance. A commemoration currently in the foreground of our minds days after this year’s Remembrance Sunday. But of the military services (and civilians) who are remembered each year, it is only recently that the members of Bomber Command have been recognised. In the immediate aftermath of the second world war, Churchill made no reference to them when praising all those who had contributed to victory, and for a long time the muddied waters of history washed over their sacrifice. While films and stories have glamorised the harsh reality of serving as an airman in Bomber Command, politicians have been keen to distance themselves from the unresolved and ambiguous morality of the bombing raids.
It is this double-barrelled conflict that is beautifully touched upon in Bob Baldwin and Max Kinning’s play, “Wireless Operator”. On the surface it is a thrilling wartime nail-biter, but it leaves a vapour trail that haunts, as it dissipates its poignancy into the night. Based on Baldwin’s own father’s experiences the play focuses on the eponymous wireless operator; a pacifist plucked from everyday life and turned into a killer. His tour of duty is thirty missions, and this is his last one. On average an airman would only survive five. As the plane heads across the channel towards Germany the young operator recalls his life back at home, his fiancée, his imminent fatherhood and recent childhood, the Tommy Dorsey music that played on his gramophone, football games in the Mile End streets. A warm jet stream of nostalgia, fiercely punctured by the cold realisation that he’s about to obliterate many, many lives just like his own friends and family.
Thomas Dennis portrays the sheer complexity of emotions with brilliant accuracy, whilst capturing the white-knuckle fear and ear-splitting danger of the flight, tempered by the camaraderie of the rest of his crew. Dennis is alone onstage, perched in designer Kit Line’s ingenious aircraft – a contraption lifted from a Heath Robinson drawing – that moves in rhythm to Phil Maguire’s blistering, flak-filled soundtrack. Merged into the soundscape is the unseen supporting cast who, through voiceover, reinforces the nightmare hidden beneath the light-hearted banter and camaraderie that keeps them going throughout the mission. But essentially this is a powerful solo performance; the sweat on Dennis’ brow is not just from the arc lights.
Played out almost in real time this is a breathless sixty minutes of theatre, during which the aircraft’s engines occasionally cut out and, with just the gliding sound of the wind, moments of reflection are given space. The sadness and the poignancy are shattering, and the vocal shrapnel pierces you with countless questions. Before the flight the wireless operator kisses a photograph of Rita Hayworth for luck. During the flight he kisses the bible while looking up to the heavens and asking, “Whose side are you on anyway?” That kind of says it all.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Pleasance Theatre until 16th November
Previously reviewed at this venue: