In the early hours of 4th May 1942, Exeter suffered a devastating attack by the Luftwaffe. Once the longed-for all-clear siren had sounded, residents emerged from under tables and inside Anderson shelters to find their city ablaze, its landscape altered beyond recognition. In collecting and collating the personal stories of Exeter residents who were aged between six and 25 on that night, Viva Voce has created an engrossing, poignant piece that provides an insight into the war-time experience, and gives a voice to ordinary people who lived through extraordinary times.
To create the sense of place and time so vital to the success of a production using verbatim techniques to tell its story, Cherry Truluck’s simple yet evocative set design, incorporating rubble, contemporaneous clothing and a radio, makes the most of the Bike Shed Theatre’s intimate brick and flagstone performance space. Against this backdrop, the five actors step into each first-hand account, introducing themselves with a name and age at the time of the Blitz, and we are pulled in close as the narrative of the war unfolds.
Alongside memory there sits, of course, uncertainty (especially when you’re peering back through 70 years) and this aspect is given space within the performances. Events are recalled with hesitation, then self-edited – “We had a coffee; no, hang on, we didn’t have coffee then, so it must have been tea” — and a flash of clarity triggers yet another memory, accompanied by pleasure at what’s been uncovered, stories feeding off stories to recreate the experience. The cast are all expert in the body language of remembering, with Rose Robinson and Laurence Pears particularly natural and at ease in their connections with the audience.
As the light-hearted stories — about personalising gas masks, friendships with evacuees and the arrival of the Americans (offering gum in exchange for a date with a sister!) — move into darker territory when the bombs start falling, it’s clear that the experience was profound, as if the explosions sucked in all the sounds, all the smells and the emotions and preserved them, fastening them to the psyche with unbreakable bounds. And yet what also comes across is how people seemed to take it in their stride, such as clambering through rubble to get to work the day after the raid, the city still smoking; seeing the body of a neighbour blown clear over a house by the force of a blast; reaching for a child’s hand poking out of a pile of bricks to realise it’s just that: a hand. It¹s here that the power of personal testimony cannot be underestimated.
For a production in which the narrative has been so expertly and subtly directed, it’s a shame that, towards the end, Jessica Beck and Helena Enright choose to include interviewees’ assessments of the present day: cue folded arms, rolling eyes, “These kids today”, and so forth. It smacks of cliché and adds nothing to the piece. Thankfully, authenticity is reclaimed at the close by Roger Free, age 11 in 1942, who remembers that “it all seemed so normal at the time”, and wonders if children in Afghanistan and Iraq feel the same, playing amid the broken buildings and the broken bodies, simply living their lives day to day.