The Winston Machine
Devised by the company
Kandinsky & New Diorama
New Diorama Theatre
A company creation led by director James Yeatman and dramaturg / producer Lauren Mooney, in about 80 minutes, The Winston Machine bridges three generations presenting three actors as multiple characters. It begins with Rachel-Leah Hosker as Charlotte in the dark days of the 1940s and in love with Bill (Nathaniel Christian), a young airman. It is their moment of parting. He says he will be back in September, but will he? With hindsight, we know how long Battle of Britain aircrew lasted.
With Charlotte singing “Every time you say goodbye”, she morphs into her own granddaughter Becky, eighty years later. She is to sing in an annual festival that commemorates VE Day reprising Vera Lynn numbers in what has become a nostalgia fest. Becky, who sings at other people’s weddings, has a fiancé who wants to set them up in their own house but she doesn’t seem so sure about marriage, especially when an old schoolfriend turns up who has been trying to make it as a singer-songwriter in London.
In a production that moves quickly with many short scenes, it is not always clear when they are or which of the multiple characters are involved and the semiology signals allow for multiple readings.
Designers Joshua Gadsby and Naomi Kuyck-Cohen set the action on a huge sloping tabletop surrounded by chairs that recalls the map table of an RAF operations room table on which aircraft movements were plotted and Charlotte or one of Rachel-Leah Hosker’s other characters seems to identify as one of the WAAFs plotting their positions. Much use is made of paper aeroplanes in action in which they may sometimes represent real ones, sometimes people’s aspirations or be used to show a parent teaching a child about life or indoctrinating them with their own ideas. The RAF uniform, preserved for decades as a family heirloom, becomes a symbol of romantic nostalgia: I presume it didn’t belong to Charlotte’s black airman Bill but a different, later partner since her son, Becky’s father (played by Hamish Macdougall), is presented as racist.
Hamish Macdougall also plays Becky’s boring fiancé and a pompous bigwig who impersonates Churchill, while Nathaniel Christian plays the returning musician, another Bill, to whom Becky bonds with her father’s disapproval.
I presume that father’s racism means the first Bill didn’t survive and his father was another airman, contemporary prejudice in contrast to 1940s welcome. It is one of the areas that isn’t clarified. What The Winston Machine does clearly set forth is to remember and learn from history, commemorate but not wallow in phoney nostalgia; the need to be awake to today’s world, to face forward, meet the challenges it presents and greet the opportunities it offers. This production demonstrates some elegant stagecraft but needs to take more time and more space to sort out its story.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton