It has been a while since I have so keenly anticipated an opening night. Ever since I learned last March about the joint project between Bravo 22 Company (the inspirational group which brought ‘The Two Worlds of Charlie F’ to the Waterside last year) and the Buckinghamshire Forces Project, I knew that this would be a production not to be missed – and I most certainly wasn’t disappointed.
The performance took place in the Other Space at The Waterside Theatre which is miniscule in comparison to the main auditorium. In order to get to one’s seat, you have to all but walk across the stage, and most members of the audience can reach out and touch the actors. I have no doubt that the proximity of the audience is pretty intimidating to the performers, but it does mean that there is a real intimacy between those watching and those being watched. The play has, in places, a confessional tone, as if the audience are eaves-dropping on the experiences and stories of the characters, and this would be completely lost in a larger space. Last night, it was a full house – full of friends and supporters of the company I suspect – but I have no doubt that the remaining performances will be equally packed, once word gets around about this emotive and thought- provoking play.
The script is by Roz Wyllie who has worked collaboratively with members of the company to turn their experiences into a coherent production. Like ‘The Two Worlds of Charlie F’, the emphasis is on the stories of the characters, and the stories they tell are compelling, poignant, funny and, at times, heart-breaking. As you might expect, many of the recounts are of those who are, or have been, members of the Armed Forces, but there is also testimony from wives and children of servicemen. The title of the play, ‘Contact’ reinforces the theme which is prevalent throughout: that being part of the forces means you are part of a family – a dysfunctional family at times, no doubt, but the ties that bind are strong.
This sense of family is conveyed very strongly through the largely amateur ensemble; like ‘The Two Worlds of Charlie F’, this is very much an ensemble piece, relying on a connection and chemistry between characters for its pathos. The simple staging allows smooth transition between individual stories without pace-destroying scene changes. I particularly appreciate the way that Wyllie juxtaposes highly emotive moments (for example a character calmly discussing her attempted suicide) with the humour of a surly teenager live-tweeting her argument with her mother! There is a great sense of veracity and commitment in all the actors’ performances. The occasional memory lapses and moments of inaudibility are forgivable in a way that I can’t imagine forgiving any other show, because they add to the sense that this play is a living and organic thing.
It was clear from the enthusiastic standing ovation at the end, that I was not the only audience member moved by this intelligent and thought-provoking play. From the shining faces taking an additional unplanned curtain call, I would hazard a guess that the company had got as much out of the experience as we had- a fact which has been at the heart of this project since day one. The next regional project will take place in Plymouth later this year, with plans to work with other regional theatres in future. I do so hope that many, many more people are given the opportunity to experience how theatre can be a life-transforming event. BRAVO! Bravo 22 Company; a stupendous first night.