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Jo's War

Lucy Bell
Encore Drama
Hen & Chickens Theatre

Jenny Crowther as Jo and Rachel Vernette as Sue
Jenny Crowther as Jo and Rachel Vernette as Sue
Rachel Vernette as Sue and Jenny Crowther as Jo

Pregnant Jo, after fainting and falling down the stairs, moves in with her boy-friend's mum so that there's help at hand if she should need it, arriving accompanied by Jasper, her cat. The two women hardly know each other and it is an awkward relationship that is matched by a fragmented structure in the play, which opens with a succession of short scenes linked by blackouts with the sound of automatic weapon fire, for this is a picture of the effect that son and partner Steve, a regular soldier on active service in Afghanistan, has on the lives of those he leaves behind in Britain.

News bulletins and gunfire are a constant reminder of the war, but at first this seems like a picture of any mother-in-law, daughter-in-law confrontation, their differences a source of comedy as Sue rules the roost in her own home: a bossy sergeant-major who is not going to let this other women get between her and her son or change her domestic pattern one iota. Sue seems to be a dyed-in-the-wool, old-school army family type; she is even making a model of her son's Warrior tank. Joe, who did not know Steve was a soldier when she fell in love with him, is a career woman in market research, not someone who looks forward to him coming home so that she can do his washing.

At first, both writing and playing are a little awkward as they feed us facts and situation and pages are torn off a calendar pad to indicate days passing. Set against Jenny Crowther's Jo, trying not to be confrontational, Rachel Vernette's Sue seems farcically extreme, but as the play progresses it and the playing develop in depth as we discover not only Jo's struggle to deal with this situation but her feelings about the military and her wishes for the future, while Sue reveals a whole back story that puts her behaviour in a different light. It is then that the play begins to offer a real understanding of the pressures on servicemen's wives and families of being left back home when they go off to war, women especially, who not only feel for the safety of their loved ones but have their own questions about the justification for what their men are doing.

The play, written by someone who knows the situation for herself, also draws on interviews with other women in service families. Its sentiments certainly do not reflect the gung-ho, stiff upper-lip attitudes of the earlier generation of military aunts and uncles I knew. It won the Ronald Duncan Playwriting Competition and arrives in London after a tour that has taken it to garrison and navy towns where it has been well received. It does not just give army wives a voice for one of its most perceptive insights is something that Joe quotes Steve as saying about the difficulties of dating civilians.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton