The Clapham Omnibus’ welcoming, cosy atmosphere is noticeably at odds with the fraught, unsettling ambience of April’s Guest House, the claustrophobic setting for Victoria Willing’s Spring Offensive. April (Willing) is a British expat who has set up shop on the Somme battlefields, capitalising on the First World War tourist industry with her trench-side B&B.
A few scenes in her company and it is clear that April is emotionally volatile. Her husband left her with a small child thirty years previously. Her guesthouse is far from thriving. She both craves and cruelly rebuffs human connection.
This toxic pattern is played out with April’s two long term guests: would-be Falklands War hero Tom (Tony Turner) and well-meaning, lonely Pam (Maggie Daniels). April saves her snidest remarks for Pam, while simultaneously relying on her to help run the business, and is alternately attracted to and disgusted by Tom. But April’s worst relationship is with herself: she appears haunted by unrealised dreams and, towards the production’s end, seems to be on the verge of a mental breakdown.
Willing’s play aims to explore loss, grief and conflict, examining how we remember and immortalise war dead and touching on the trials faced by older women. These are worthy, meaty themes, but not obviously interconnected ones – and the script does not make such a connection clear. Too many ideas are touched upon, and never fully expanded.
The script’s strongest line of inquiry is our collective remembrance of the First World War. Spring Offensive acutely evokes the uneasy line between respectful commemoration and misguided celebration. A scene in which Tom shows off his Somme battlefields memorabilia – which includes chocolate helmets and poppy-emblazoned mugs – is appropriately jarring.
Tom, prone to misquoting “In Flanders Fields”, refuses to see a problem in making money from a terrible loss of life. The alternative view is presented by Pam, who wants to curate an exhibition of photographs of gravestones to highlight the futility of war. These two worldviews come to a head at several key moments to great effect. Director Marie McCarthy adds intimacy by placing the action in the round; audiences sit on haphazardly arranged armchairs, as if they too are in the B&B, unwittingly drawn into the drama.
Willing’s script attempts to draw a comparison between the lost generation of the First World War, and her symbolically lost characters, but doesn’t quite connect the dots. April flits quickly from being a snide hostess to a mentally unstable; perhaps she is depressed, perhaps she is emotionally scarred. But Spring Offensive does not explore its protagonist’s mental state in enough detail for it to be truly affecting.
The result is a thought-provoking production, marked by interesting ideas, but let down by an uneven plot.
Spring Offensive is at Clapham Omnibus Theatre until April 30th. For more details, click here.