Director: Gary Phillpott
Starring: Becca Cooper
Written by: Tom Glover
I took a theatre novice with me to see England Expects, whose last experience of live drama took place circa 2006. “You didn’t tell me it has songs!” he cried upon seeing the poster. “What have you brought me to?!” he exclaimed upon seeing that a single actor, Becca Cooper, would be playing all of the parts. What I had brought him to was a play produced on a modest budget by the relatively young Off the Fence Theatre Company for Upstairs at The Western, a pub theatre with roughly 50 seats.
Yet, from the script, written by Tom Glover, to Cooper’s stellar performance, to the technical aspects, the play defied expectations. As music hall star Vesta Tilley – and the host of characters who surrounded her throughout her career – Cooper was hugely likeable, despite Vesta’s complicity in recruiting men to be sent to their deaths. Vesta’s increasing conflict between her duty to her husband and her guilt at encouraging young men to enlist was subtly conveyed. Though she began nervously, stumbling over a line here and there, Cooper soon settled into the role, moving deftly between each of the characters. Carrying the play for 70 minutes, her energy didn’t appear to waver and, though she didn’t seek it, she received an ovation after every song (and another when she entered the bar in her civvies after the show.)
An assortment of costume pieces were on hand to assist Cooper, but the audience immediately knew who she was at any given moment through her use of posture, facial expression and dialect; her depiction of Marie Lloyd – cockney, wide-legged, hands on hips – provided Vesta’s comic foil. Most of the secondary characters were familiar, two-dimensional wartime figures: the politicians, suffragettes and Tommies we’ve seen before on stage and screen. Walter de Frece, Vesta’s husband-cum-manager, was perhaps the star of the show. His desire to use Vesta’s career on the stage to further his own in politics, before realising that Vaudeville was not considered respectable by the ruling elite, delivered many of the bigger laughs.
Glover’s witty and artful script provided no history lesson, nor did it preach – we already know about the losses and casualties of World War One – but rather it presented a satirical portrait of the war and those involved in it. The gaiety of the music hall and the jingoism of the recruitment drive were drenched in irony, while Vesta’s initial enthusiasm for the war effort was undermined by the self-interest of de Frece and his cohorts.
In its tone, England Expects can be compared to its forebears Oh! What a Lovely War and Blackadder. Both were recently condemned by education secretary Michael Gove for perpetuating an image of the Great War as “a misbegotten shambles – a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite” and denigrating “patriotism, honour and courage”, but England Expects addressed both sides of the coin. Honour and courage were evident themes, shown by the presentation of men with white feathers, and a young soldier returning from war blinded yet proud of his time serving, proving that criticism of war and the portrayal of human resilience are not mutually exclusive.
England Expects will certainly not be the last play written to mark the centenary of WWI, but it kicked off the commemorations in style. Off the Fence succeeded in delivering a quality piece of theatre; by the time the applause faded and the lights went up, my companion was nodding earnestly: “That was very impressive.”