Modelling Spitfires

Vanessa Rosenthal
Yellow Leaf Theatre
Square Chapel Centre for the Arts, Huddersfield
(2006)

Production photograph

Yellow Leaf Theatre is becoming established as a producer of high quality, low tech small scale tours. Little wonder, the three founders - Vanessa Rosenthal, Chris Wilkinson and Alan Meadows, all in their sixties - have worked for decades as actors, writers, directors. They have an awesome combined C.V.

Modelling Spitfires is a well constructed play which captures in three skilfully drawn characters the hell of sibling rivalry and the flesh wounds of mental disturbance. And it's all wrapped up in a blanket of humour and sympathy.

Maurice (Chris Wilkinson) returns from mental hospital to his family house, now run by his sister Anita (Vanessa Rosenthal). The mother (he loved and she didn't) is long dead. The academic, perhaps brutal father went later. Late enough to ensure that Anita has had no life of her own. Until now. Her daughter is grown, the house is hers. Or is it?

She thinks Maurice is here for a couple of weeks. He thinks he's here for life - and he's bringing in an co-patient, Janet (Dee Whitehead), as his wife to be.

As Anita says, 'We don't do normal in this house.' Maurice with his model aeroplanes, imitations of flight, and habit of referring to himself in the third person is clearly quirky. Anita's strangeness is slower in development. But by act two we see not only that the mentally ill sufferer brings suffering to those around, but that those around are simply ones who cope better with their 'disturbance'. And what about Janet in her baby pink and her love for fluffy bunnies? To be human is to be weird!

But we can be weird in different ways. And Janet's deep, warm tolerance of Maurice's idiosyncrasy is itself curiously heartening and warming. It's captured so well in the final sequence when she emerges with tea, sees Anita catatonic with despair as Maurice performs a quite beautiful dance of flight. Janet nods to her husband to be, observes with affection that he is clearly otherwise engaged and then, the fateful, fate-sealing words; 'shall I be mother?' You will realise the full significance if you see this intelligent play.

Good performances all round, with moments of brilliance. Chris Wilkinson has to be singled out for his sustained excellence, Dee Whitehead for her faultless soppy cheeriness and Vanessa Rosenthal for a gradual transformation from totally inappropriate supermarket till-lady into an emotionally frozen woman who should really be walking a pair of 'dawgs' on the heath and collecting a gong for years in the Civil Service.

The play has faults. The first act meanders and is a little muddy, the set is a touch Heath Robinson, the flow is sometimes jerky and the whole thing could usefully lose five minutes. All flaws that can be put to rights. If you want to benefit from years of theatrical experience, seek out Yellow Leaf.

"Modelling Spitfires" tours until June

Reviewer: Ray Brown