Reviews London TheatreWest End & Central Published 7 April 2016

Review: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot at Tristan Bates Theatre

Tristan Bates Theatre ⋄ 4th - 5th April 2016

“It’s difficult to talk about a piece of theatre when it’s not theatre anymore but a documentary.” Lauren Mooney reviews Rebecca Crookshank’s autobiographical work.

Lauren Mooney
Rebecca Crookshank in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot at the Tristan Bates Theatre. Photo: Cecilia Cooper-Colby.

Rebecca Crookshank in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot at the Tristan Bates Theatre. Photo: Cecilia Cooper-Colby.

Rebecca Crookshank’s father was a Royal Marine, like his father before him, and she followed their footsteps into the military at just seventeen years old, though she joined the Royal Air Force instead, as the marines wouldn’t take a woman. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is the generally light-hearted tale of Crookshank’s training and early years of service in the RAF, an otherwise average-sounding 90s teenager caught up in the war machine (or the peace machine, as one of her colleagues calls it) by her sense of her own inheritance.

Crookshank, who both writes and performs in this autobiographical show, is a watchable character actor who makes light work of all the story’s secondary characters: the friends she makes while training, the barking staff sergeants, the gentler senior officers who see Crookshank’s potential. Her feelings about the military are clearly complicated. Although she left the RAF four years after joining, aged 21, she talks about it with a lot of fondness, often contrasting the chaos of her family life at that time – her grandmother’s death, her parents’ divorce – with the neatness and order of the armed forces.

Crookshank-the-performer is enjoying herself, but Crookshank-the-writer’s dedication to absolute truth damages the pacing of the show, as the narrative veers in line with every up-and-down that really beset her. Real life lacks narrative structure and so to, at times, does Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, in its dedication to telling Crookshank’s true story at the expense of creating narrative tension or through-lines, though there are some neat observations along the way – not least as she prepares to celebrate her eighteenth birthday with her colleagues, old enough to fire a gun but too young to buy a pint.

Generally the oddest thing about Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is that it is so overwhelmingly chipper and fun that it feels strange to remember what they actually did and were trained to do, all of which is touched on surprisingly little by Crookshank. Most of the show is a mixture of the day-to-day boot-polishing banality of the young recruits’ lives and a curiously British ordinariness, the video of their Pass Out Parade intercut with footage of the airmen and women’s mums and dads and grans sitting chilly and proud in their coats in the rain – except that every now and then, you glimpse the dark underbelly of the military through all the S Club 7 and costume changes. One of her contemporaries has his training suspended after being found with a rifle to his temple and declared temporarily unstable; Crookshank herself struggles with loneliness, insecurity, ailing mental health, even a suicide attempt.

And though the Crookshank on the stage maintains a winning smile most of the time, the Crookshank in the stories sounds much less certain of herself; when you see her in the home videos she made back then, the eighteen-year-old Crookshank looks overwhelmingly pale and young and lost – never more so than in the play’s latter third, when she describes the weeks spent marooned on a posting at an isolated base, the only woman among 28 young men.

This is when the whole thing turns, dizzyingly, sickeningly. They tease her, but it’s more than teasing. They jostle her, but it’s more than jostling. They feel her up, they call her names, and steadily the whole thing slides from something unpalatable into something abusive, illegal, almost unwatchable, and still Crookshank, playing a version of herself and almost twenty years older now, smiling a very brittle smile, keeps showing us these videos where the men who should have been her colleagues and friends alternately torture and pursue her younger self, and it all gets worse and worse and worse.

It’s difficult to talk about a piece of theatre when it’s not theatre anymore but a documentary, when the irrefutable evidence is on screen, when it’s all true. It’s difficult to say the things I want to say about it: that this section sits uncomfortably in the chirpier narrative that precedes and ultimately follows it. That this section of the show feels urgent, important in a way the rest of the show, likable as it is, doesn’t. That it feels like this is the show’s dramatic centre, and they don’t give it the space for it to be that. Because who the fuck am I to tell a trauma survivor how to tell her own story?

Crookshank’s chosen to structure it as a story of triumph over adversity, a theatrical bildungsroman in which the section that seems narratively the most frightening, the most objectively important, is treated as a small part of several years’ journey to adulthood – and that’s absolutely her right. But her experiences at that base are so shocking that they eclipse everything else. They just do. You come away wanting to know whether these men are the reason she left the RAF a few years later; whether it has taken her fourteen years to even be able to tell this story; whether her tormentors are being investigated like those at Deepcut, or if they got away with it entirely.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is a likable story of personal triumph from a performer who is clearly very brave indeed, but it makes for a strange, difficult evening by its conclusion. And it seems a shame that the depths that would elevate it into something more remarkable go largely unplumbed.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is now touring. Click here for details.

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Lauren Mooney

Lauren Mooney is a writer, producer and arts administrator based in London. As well as writing for Exeunt and The Stage, Lauren works at Clean Break and is the writer-producer for Kandinsky.

Review: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot at Tristan Bates Theatre Show Info


Produced by Oliver Taheri

Directed by Jessica Beck

Written by Rebecca Crookshank

Cast includes Rebecca Crookshank

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