Every year on VE Day, Becky’s small town holds a ‘Festival of Remembrance’. Everyone dresses up in tea dresses and bowler hats and exchanges coupons for powdered egg sandwiches. Every year, Becky (Rachel-Leah Hosker) performs Vera Lynn songs on a stage just around the corner from the Churchill tanks display.
In 2020, on Captain Tom Moore’s 100th birthday, the RAF’s Battle of Britain memorial planes – a Hurricane and a Spitfire – performed a flypast over his house. The country had gone absolutely mad for him – he also received over 150,000 birthday cards – and it was integral to the mass hysterical adulation that not only had he raised money for the NHS, but that he had fought in WWII.
In The Winston Machine, with care, consideration and eminent reasonableness, Kandinsky ask, what the fuck is going on here? Why are British people today so obsessed with having won the Second World War? And what are the bleak dangers of this kind of nostalgic nationalism?
Joshua Gadsby and Naomi Kuyck-Cohen’s set looks like looks like a military strategy-planning table. You know it from war movies: huge, rectangular, solid, surrounded by chairs and moustachioed men who speak in clipped, gruff RP. Sturdy enough for the three performers to stand on. Only it’s angled at a noticeable downward tilt. And the strip lights above it sway and jangle alarmingly if you knock them. There’s something a little off. It’s harder to keep calm and carry on against the gentle but insistent pull of gravity.
Becky has been trying to live her life with the sort of stoic optimism that is supposed to be a peculiarly British quality. She lives at home with her sad, cardiganed dad (Hamish MacDougall) and the biggest decision she needs to make is whether to buy a house with her sad, cardiganed boyfriend (Hamish MacDougall) – but she dreams of the romance and heroism of her grandparents’ lives; her grandad Bill (Nathaniel Christian) was an RAF pilot in the Battle of Britain.
The narrative shifts between three generations, with the performers multi-roling throughout. James Yeatman’s crisp, clever direction deliberately blurs the lines between memory and history, propaganda and reality. Hosker plays both Becky and her grandmother, Charlotte; MacDougall plays Mark, Becky’s dad, as both a boy and a man. ‘We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when…’ Becky sings in rehearsals, and Vera Lynn’s song takes on a disoriented temporality: it’s so very of a specific period in the past, but it’s so much about an as-yet unfulfilled future. In the witty opening scene, Hosker (as Charlotte) and Christian (as Bill) kiss and part with the cut-glass accents, melodramatic gestures and repressed emotional strain of a 1940s black-and-white weepy. Then the scene ends abruptly as Becky’s daydreaming is interrupted by her boyfriend’s incoming Whatsapp call.
The play is subtle and smart about culture: how people’s everyday patterns of thought are shaped and their identities are constructed. In the background, Zac Gvirtzman’s score and Kieran Lucas’s sound tick tick pings as the characters scroll down their social media feeds, assaulted by videos and clickbait, and then swells unsettlingly. There is an underlying sense of culture as a battleground, to be fought for and defended, and with it the drip drip leak of racist exclusionism. When Becky’s friend Lewis (played with sweet puppyishness by Christian) tells Mark that he’s a professional musician, Mark assumes he writes rap music because Lewis is black. In fact Lewis’s band play indie ‘bedroom pop’. The relationship between the two men is awkward from that point on. ‘I don’t fuck with the war,’ Lewis says later, when Becky asks him to accompany her at the Festival of Remembrance. He means, ‘Your dad’s told me to keep away.’
The Winston Machine argues that nostalgic nationalism – this constant circling back to the glory days when Britain and the British People Won the War and the parade of visual imagery associated with that period – not only fortifies a racist conception of Britishness, but stops us moving forward into new futures. In particular, it restricts the opportunities of young people and people of colour in this country, delineating the boundaries beyond which they’re ‘going too far’. As Mark scrolls through Facebook, he’s drawn to vicious comments about Meghan Markle and the Euro 2020 England football team. In the final scene, Lewis tries to engage the audience in the act of imagining a successful future for himself as an artist, but he’s repeatedly shouted down by a Churchill impersonator puffing on a sinister cigar.
I’ll admit there were times during The Winston Machine that I wished it was as strange as these final moments, that it conveyed more of a theatrical sense of the warped vileness that white nationalism can breed, or the sheer batshit weirdness of a country that gave a centenarian a knighthood, a BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award, a gold Blue Peter badge, and the Freedom of the City of London for walking up and down his garden. Maybe the title sets up a promise that isn’t quite answered. But while there were some nice visual moments – paper aeroplane flights, drunken karaoke – ultimately the focus is on a human story, on characters and their feelings.
Hosker, Christian and MacDougall are all poised and beautifully confident performers, and they imbue all the characters they play with warmth and vitality. The production takes care to acknowledge that nostalgic nationalism relates to an emotional territory as much as it does to the physical borders of this island. It’s about pride and grief and who gets to feel them about what. It’s perhaps not as exciting as the giant animatronic bulldog-prime minister I was semi-expecting, but then it’s a sign of Kandinsky’s maturity and thoughtfulness as a company.
The Winston Machine is on at New Diorama Theatre till 19th February. More info here.