I have always had a great admiration for individuals capable of spinning a compelling yarn of fiction in a well-researched, non-fiction setting. History is rife with compelling stories to tell–millions of which are arguably far more compelling than just about anything a single imagination can conjure. Too often, forays into historical fiction end up as nothing more than a bland, shapeless mess–the fiction trying desperately to jockey the audience’s attention from the facts. To the other extreme, there is also the danger of the fiction overbearing the historical context, with some potentially accusing the fiction of belittling, manipulating, or misrepresenting facts for the sake of entertainment. To be sure, the cast and crew of Nottingham Theatre’s 18B certainly don’t lack for ambition in this minefield of a genre, and a skeptic would be forgiven for wondering how a small company of uni students could possibly succeed where the likes of so many “professional” storytellers have failed. Somehow, director Tess Monro-Somerville, playwright Jake Leonard, and their army of uni talent have.
Somehow, director Tess Monro-Somerville, playwright Jake Leonard, and their army of uni talent have.
From the first five or ten minutes of this 1-hour piece, however, you might not think that. A (admirably period-accurate) radio broadcast provides the plays context: in WWII, the British government has just passed Defense Regulation 18B, allowing the internment of anyone suspected of having Nazi sympathies. Charles Lyon-Johns (Aaron Tej) and his cranky but efficient aide William Thompson (Ben Hollands) have the unfortunate job of interrogating three imprisoned civilian women (Lucy Bromilow, Amelia Gann, and Chloe Bickford) and assessing their potential “danger to society.” At first, the interrogations appear a tad formal and drab, with the questions revealing very little and the women revealing even less; in other words, the context initially outshines the content, with the narrative action merely playing second fiddle to the war-torn setting they supposedly inhabit. Thankfully, this doesn’t last long. The plot’s a bit of a slow burner, and while it takes about a third of the runtime to get going, once it does it becomes both accessible and utterly compelling. Characters gradually reveal layers of depth, conflict, and inner turmoil that keep the audience guessing what Lyon-John’s questions might infer next.
The context initially outshines the content, with the narrative action merely playing second fiddle to the war-torn setting they supposedly inhabit
While Tej and Hollands make for a fine tag team (with their contrasting interview styles making for an amusing subplot), this production unquestionably belongs to the women, and all three create characters worthy of plays in their own right. Every nervous tick, every vocal mannerism and wayward glance these amazing actresses give each work to wring every ounce of subtext out Leonard’s playfully ambiguous script. Bickford does a spot-on German dialect and finds real warmth in discussing her upbringing and the country she considers home. Gann takes a character that could have come of as a caricature in lesser hands and turns her into a capable lady who knows how to use a chirpy, ditzy facade to mask her true sympathies. These two ladies more than deserve top billing, but Bromilow is a revelation. With a whip-smart tongue and a stare that could stop a Nazi platoon by itself, her Violet Mortimer radiates with a confidence and intensity you simply aren’t supposed to see away from the West End. When Lyon-Johns and Thompson grill her about her husband and estranged child, you almost feel sorry for them.
Every nervous tick, every vocal mannerism and wayward glance these amazing actresses give each work to wring every ounce of subtext out Leonard’s playfully ambiguous script
The staging, while simple, does a fine job evoking its era with minimal clutter. Keeping all three women onstage at all times was a particularly wise decision, keeping the scene transition times to a bare minimum while granting the production a focus it would not have had otherwise. While it’s Lyon-Johns and Thompson with the most true stage time, this is a tale of three unique women trapped in the worst of worlds–and Monro-Somerville is well aware of that. The “trial” setup of the majority of the scenes does create some occasional aimless wandering on the men’s part, although it does nothing to distract from the performances and I chalk most of that to opening night nerves. I would expect that to settle as the cast gets comfortable.
While it’s Lyon-Johns and Thompson with the most true stage time, this is a tale of three unique women trapped in the worst of worlds.
18B is a thoughtful, engrossing original piece that is well worthy of thespian lovers and historians alike. It achieves the nigh impossible finding a fictional story (and fictional characters) that are worthy of standing up to a tale as imposing as the Second World War. And going beyond that, it reveals a little bit about our own present, asking questions that are every bit as relevant today as they were in the 1940s. Is the sacrifice of a little liberty worth the insurance of freedom? Buy a ticket, enjoy the show, and find out for yourself.
18B is being taken to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this August, for more information see here