Student produced drama at its best

It was a delight to hear that after a long five years Warwick drama (God, they sound like a mafia) was once again producing a student-written play. Warwick finalist Ollie Jones’ first full play Daisy Cutter follows the last days of a Bomber Command unit of the Royal Air Force in 1943. The play opens with the loss of the crew’s rear gunner John Hollis and the arrival of replacement Stephen McManus. McManus is coldly received into a crew still silently grieving the loss of their friend, his arrival starting a series of events leading up to their final bomber mission to Berlin, ‘the big one’.

Just when you think you have seen every possible way of using the Arts Centre Studio Nina Scott works her steadily becoming ‘legendary’ design skills to create the wonderfully immersive world of the bomber boys. Walking into the studio I was struck by the unusual staging, the space divided into smaller stages, which the audience were free to move around. These formed the barracks, the mess tent, the air field and the more abstract platform from where the more poetic, stylised scenes were delivered. This mismatch of plane wreckage (some top-rate prop sourcing must be applauded) and rubble was an arena for the boy’s memories both painful and joyous. My favourite scenes were centrally staged at what is possibly the world’s longest table; here the audience could fully surround the action; the close proximity allowing us to invest much more into the experience.

Jones’ writing was first rate with a careful attention to detail, utilising the lexicon of the period to give his characters authenticity. Overall Jones balanced the play well between realistic dialogue and more poetical, stylised scenes. There is a danger when dramatising war to be too sentimental but the script’s humour was the perfect antidote. If I had one gripe it was that I struggled to believe that the boys would have been so vocal to each other about their fears and anxieties about the imminent danger. The nervous glances between the performers, the heavy breathing; what was not said was a much more effective way of capturing their fear. Nevertheless this was an example of a writer finding his voice having something to say.

{{ quote This was not a play to be acted by men. They weren’t bomber men but boys. }}

Knowing some of the cast well I expected nothing but the best from the stellar Tom Dale, Tom Syms, Jack Churchill, Dave Burnett and Oliver Hayes. They all delivered on the night and I particularly enjoyed Dale’s vulnerability and Churchill’s laddish charm. There were also some new surprises; Chris McGuire’s northern Sergeant Tyler was a very natural and warm portrayal that avoided being caricature. However the medal goes to Richard Wing who I hear had never performed in a play before. Maybe this was the reason for his natural ease and genuine embodiment of ‘Jock,’ the Scottish engineer. A nearly flawless accent made him, along with McGuire, re-assurance that the future of Warwick’s acting talent is secure.

Nonetheless this was overall a team effort and director Ed Lewis had obviously worked hard to make the boys individual characters and yet a strong collective. A real sense of companionship and camaraderie came across on stage, reminiscent of The History Boys. This for me was the power of the play. At the end they declared their ages ‘21, 22, 23’ reminding us all that it is easy to forget how young soldiers were. Daisy Cutter was very special not only because it was totally created by students but because it is very rare that a whole cast in Warwick drama ever play characters close to their real age. This was not a play to be acted by men. They weren’t bomber men, they were bomber boys and seeing the boys on stage I was struck by the reality of nearly 70 years ago, when boys my age had to worry about fighter planes not essay deadlines.


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