I’ve already written a couple of times about the community project based approach of Alfie James Productions in reviews of Ruptured Duck and Women In War. The latter examines the experience of those who took on a nursing role supporting the actual fighters in World War 1. As a companion piece, and set during World War 2, comes audio play The Spitfire Club which concentrates on how war was experienced by young people. The focus is on the London Borough of Redbridge and as that was where I spent my teenage and young adult years (long after the war – I’m not that old!) I thought this would prove interesting. And so it did. As various place names such as Gants Hill and Wanstead were highlighted and locations discussed I could picture them in my mind. Situated just to the east of London itself the area must have been a regular target during the air raids and indeed, the Ilford Hippodrome Theatre (one of Frank Matcham’s many designs) was destroyed by a V2 raid early in 1945. Its eventual replacement, The Kenneth More Theatre, was basically where I learned my own craft.
But enough of my personal history; what about the play? Written once again by Alfie James himself, The Spitfire Club is the story of a gang of children who have not joined the great evacuation and have stayed at home during the conflict. The central character, ten year old Norman, comes from a typical family of the era; dad who is a pilot has gone off to war and he’s now the man of the house supposedly looking after the womenfolk but as often as not he’s playing out with his friends. This is all long before parents became too anxious to allow their offspring to do be away from them for any length of time and so the kids race around the streets playing war games and climbing over wrecked bomb sites in search of souvenirs. One day they get more than they bargain for when they find a find a lone German airman and decide to hide him – although they claim they are taking him prisoner. When things in life start to go wrong, Norman begins to wonder whether this is some sort of divine retribution and has to make a decision about whether to persist or fess up.
The original production was meant to play as a staged piece but like so much last year was scuppered by a different sort of invasion and subsequent “war”. Thus, the script has been repurposed as an audio play and recorded remotely. In what sounds like a mostly young cast, the gang are neatly characterised and differentiated with Jon Undersander as Norman and Atarah as Bobby also executing the narration for some of the more visually focused scenes. There’s a believable and sympathetic Mum (Catherine) from Evelina Plonyte though I felt Elizabeth McNally as Grandma Rose gave us far too much of cackling caricature and I wasn’t entirely convinced either by Klodian Rexha’s accent as the German Pilot. The rest of the cast often double as the local inhabitants a mixture of the good, the bad and, in the case of Colin Chapman’s (no relation) teacher the downright sadistic.
James’s script is peppered with newsreel announcements and sections which make it plain to uninitiated listeners what evacuation, rationing, the Blitz and so on were all about. This is borne out of some painstaking research undertaken by the umbrella project’s participants into the local archives and through interviews with those who were there. This now resides on the company’s website as an extremely useful learning resource about what life was like: click here. This overarching project was entitled Hope And Glory and The Spitfire Club certainly shares some DNA with John Boorman’s 1987 film of the same name. It’s another useful addition to other current productions which examine the British at war and ideal for a Remembrance Sunday listen.