Bob Baldwin and Max Kinnings
Bomber crews are an often unsung part of the nature of warfare. While the low life expectancy, high death rate and the constant peril make fine bedfellows for the traffic of an Edinburgh Festival Fringe stage, it is a rarity. This surprising fact is only highlighted by the sense of immersion and thrilling vitality that is felt during Wireless Operator, a vitality that comes between bouts of introspection, self-doubt and creeping dread, high above nighttime clouds in the freezing wartime skies.
Thomas Dennis plays the part of John, the titular Wireless Operator of a Lancaster bomber, on his last mission before finishing his tour. He's the only part of the crew we see, as the rest are disembodied voices, heard on comms from other parts of the plane, or cast up from memory during his musings. He's young, cocky but frightened and is desperately afraid that he's never going to make it home to his sweetheart and to what lies ahead for them.
Only a single actor onstage, perched on a turret constructed from an ingenuously simple gimbal, creates the perfect visual metaphor for the story. John is alone, separated from his crewmates by sheets of thin metal, but almost an impossible void. As matters turn from better to bad to worse, there are jokes, recriminations, petty squabbles, but still trust and care. But when the moments of action drop, it's the cold dark of fear that pervades, as well as the clear signs of PTSD that manifest in him throughout.
Having based their story on a variety of real sources, first-hand accounts and military fact, Bob Baldwin and Max Kinnings's script manages to be both a tribute to the men who flew such missions and a grim reminder of the horrors of war. There's little in the way of sugar-coating the reality of what these men were asked to do and the effect it has upon them. It's also a cleverly staged and at times concussively loud production.
That's unfortunately one of the downsides, as the roaring crashes of bombs, flak and strange cracks which send John into moments of silent musing are so loud as to drown out some of the dialogue. They also occasionally make events less clear rather than more so. It's also both a blessing and a curse that the writing never stoops to devising a reason for John to explain his actions and work inside the plane, but, considering that there are some moments of paucity and some repetition, perhaps a better balance might have been struck.
In any event, the overall effect is still one of stunning and impacting clarity of vision.
Reviewer: Graeme Strachan