If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England…
The Soldier – Rupert Brooke
For the past three years, the centenary of the First World War has been remembered by the media. Unlike the Second World War where there was almost universal recognition for its ‘necessity’, the ‘Great War’ is known primarily for the pointless loss of life – mostly at the behest of political interests and high-ranking military officials not on the frontline. Even before today’s reappraisal of those dark days, poetry by soldiers at that time often told a very different story to the jingoistic propaganda spouted by the British government at that time…
Written by Victoria Willing and directed by Marie McCarthy, Spring Offensive takes place in the present day – a stone’s throw away from the battlefields of the Somme. Running one of the guesthouses nearby, April (Victoria Willing) has as her guest Pam (Maggie Daniels) and Tom (Tony Turner). Pam is of a silmilar age to April, but is very different in terms of temperament and life experiences. Following the death of her mother, Pam is free to do whatever she wants – in her case, finding the last resting place of a soldier that has caught her imagination. Tom, meanwhile, is one of the guides of the area – giving talks on the Somme.
Spring Offensive can be described as a dark comedy, which much of the humour – and tension – deriving from April and Tom’s reactions to Pam. April finds Pam’s general enthusiasm and willingness to help grating, while Tom feels threatened by the progress in her research on the soldiers buried near the Somme, which he feels impinges on ‘his’ territory. However, this is small potatoes compared to their umbrage at her ‘innocuous’ comments about their livelihoods and the value of life.
Through Pam’s casual comments, the play reminds us that in a post-Brexit world, ex-pats like April may have to go ‘home’ once the EU rights to stay have been rescinded – a comment that goes down with April like a lead zeppelin. For Tom, the ‘privilege’ of fighting – and dying – for one’s country should never be questioned. Questioning is what the ‘unpatriotic’, the ‘communists’ and conscientious objectors did. If ‘the Push’ at places like the Somme isn’t an act of patriotism, where is its ‘noblity’ or value? Then there’s the question of Tom’s profiting from war-related chocolates and merchandise. The possibility that it is distasteful to the memory of those fallen doesn’t sit easy with him…
As ‘weighty’ as these topics are, Willing’s writing allows them to surface intermittently in conversation, using the inherent absurdities in some situations to them register without being didactic. While Pam on the surface is a person the other characters look down on, she is the play’s moral centre and the most important – in the sense she unwittingly prompts the others to question their life choices.
While Tom is the most nakedly hostile initially, it is April in the latter part of the play who exhibits the most disquieting behaviour as she learns to let go of the things she’s held on tightly to – of not being the most important person to an adult son, of not being a young woman anymore, of the stress that accompanies the precarious hospitality business.
While Spring Offensive doesn’t conclude with a ‘feel-good factor’, it makes up for it with ideas that that resonate long after the play is over. The fact that the show has a female-led writing/directing team also gives it a unique of looking at things, linking ideas about identity, poetry, rootlessness and freedom, with stages in women’s lives.
© Michael Davis 2017
Spring Offensive runs at Omnibus Clapham until 30th April 2017