The tunnels which occupy the space underneath Waterloo Station can be wonderfully atmospheric during the VAULT Festival, and no more so than for Madeline Gould’s Think of England, which recreates a war-time sense of ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’, though it’s the carry on part which causes quite a fuss. This immersive production is set during an air-raid, and we are all part of the action, in the shelter, deep below the streets of London.
The fact that these very tunnels were used as air-raid shelters during the war, certainly helps create the right atmosphere, and there is a real sense of what’s happening, as we take our seats to the sounds of the sirens and dropping bombs.
While I can only imagine the horror of nightly raids forcing Londoners underground, we are lucky enough, in this situation to be joined by Vera and Bette, who are employed by the War Office to keep morale high by holding tea dances. They just happen to have their whole kit with them, and soon the shelter is decorated in bunting, the gramophone is playing, and a tombola has been hastily organised.
The party is soon forgotten as a group of Canadian airmen arrive, Vera (Madeline Gould) and Bette (Leila Sykes) seem enchanted by the dashing group, though we discover later, for different reasons. We return to the immersive party occasionally, including a quick dance lesson for the audience.
Think of England is based on a true story, and the whole thing feels entirely plausible, looking at ordinary people, as opposed to the traditional ‘war-hero’. Both Vera and Bette seem completely capable of keeping spirits high, while the airmen occupy the various personalities required for the drama to evolve. Tom (Pip Brignall) is the villain of the piece, balanced with Frank’s (Stefan Menaul) shyness and sensitivity, with it falling to Bill (Matthew Biddulph) to try and keep them all in order.
The immersive elements are a lot of fun, we even had a couple of sing-a-long’s, but some of the dialogue is too lengthy. The plot, and subsequent twists, are cleverly devised, but the conflict elements come a little late, by which point the audience are ready to draw the tombola, and make a sharp exit on the sound of the all-clear.
While a tightening of the script would make Think of England even better, there’s no denying this is a fun and thought provoking, immersive piece of theatre. Never have I heard “you’ve won an orange” said with such conviction, summing up the authenticity which has been has been liberally spread over this war-time drama.