English ex-pat April runs a guesthouse on the Somme catering for visitors to the war graves and battleground of World War One. She ended up there 20 years ago when in search of a haven after her husband walked out on her.
One of her guests sits at the dining table in a room that has taken over the whole theatre in this in-the-round production, with some of the audience on sofas. It’s Pam, who is cleaning a bayonet. She fell in love with a photo of one of the fallen and, after years of looking after an ailing mother, now goes around photographing war graves. She is obsessed with war and its futility.
Pam is joined by Tom, a regular visitor who comes over each year to run tours of the battlefield; he’s just finished leading one. He seems to get on well with April, even though he refuses the odd jobs she’d like him to do, but for some reason there’s a tension between the two women.
Victoria Willing’s play gives us a glimpse of the back-story of each of them. The writer herself plays April with a polarity that switches between joviality and scathing in contrast to Maggie Daniels’s compliant Pam, eager to help, always trying to please. Tony Turner’s Tom is a bit of a con artist, a bit of a bumbler, a man who seems to think women are there for his convenience.
Though the plot is concerned largely with the tensions between these three and April’s somewhat manic behaviour, still smarting from her husband’s desertion, about the isolation and lack of love in all three lives, it tries to add a layer of surreal significance. Dropped in reference to Brexit and what it might mean for April’s future put it bang in the present but Spring Offensive is also about the past and about attitudes to it.
The title equates the start of the tourist season with military manoeuvres and a flock of sheep that surround the guesthouse (one she calls Nana April’s particular favourite, a regular indoor visitor) obviously echo the young men that were sent to slaughter.
An awkwardly slotted-in demonstration of one of April’s tours is a satirical comment on the trivialisation of war's horrors and the tasteless and tawdry souvenirs Tom sells to his clients (chocolate ammunition and barbed-wire stemmed poppies) critique their commercial exploitation—even Pam’s idea of an appropriate memorial seems misguided.
There are some oddities that seem surely symbolic, though seeing what of is a challenge. Why make April’s ex-husband a seller of aeroplane escape exit lights? Did his going removed all hope of escape from her problems? What is the significance of the band who have booked in and why does she turn them away on arrival? Has she decided a return to her hedonistic past is not what she now wants?
At times darkly funny, occasionally incongruous, this study of three people trying to find some purpose for living in a world where so many died offers interesting performances but it hints at much more than it actually delivers in its single act.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton