A woman waits hopefully on a railway platform for her husband to appear. Her wait is a long one. A clock ticks, the station empties and still he doesn’t come. But her face remains hopeful, her optimistic smile holding firm beneath her clown’s nose.
Told mainly through mime, Leela Bunce’s solo show is a poignant evocation of life on the Home Front during the Second World War. Based on interviews with those who lived through it, her approach is one of collage; the show takes the form of a lace of short scenes which together tell of the experiences of the women left behind.
The stagecraft is a joy. A string of cut-out paper children are slowly concertinaed out of view as they are evacuated from their homes. A clothes line full of washing is backlit to reveal a city in flames, bombs raining from the sky. A Pathé newsreel plays out across the backcloth, urging women to join the workforce. There are numerous vintage suitcases strewn around the set and in these become accordions, typewriters, kitchen tables; one of them, when opened, reveals a tiny puppet Stanley writing home and requesting fresh socks. In the most inventive sequence of all, a lump of dough – mixed together from what scant ingredients are still available – is turned first into a wailing baby, before slowly being moulded into the distinctive jowls of Churchill in full oratorical flow.
Bunce (aka Audacity Chutzpah) is a hugely appealing performer, simultaneously graceful and goofy in her movements, with a deliciously expressive face. She has a puppyish quality, ever eager for applause, whether leading the audience in a rousing rendition of ‘Daisy, Daisy’ or riding an invisible motorcycle across a shadow landscape.
In terms of subject matter and the method of presentation there are obvious parallels with Caroline Horton’s utterly captivating You’re Not Like The Other Girls Chrissy – the inventive use of suitcases is an obvious point of comparison – though Bunce’s act is almost entirely wordless. Whereas Chrissy’s personality filled the room, Bunce’s war-wife is more of an everywoman, a vivid and charming on-stage presence and yet never quite a character in her own right.
There’s been some discussion across the course of the festival (here and here) about the compatibility of a certain whimsical Fringe aesthetic with stories drawn from the two world wars, about the mingling of fairy lights and goblin quests with the foul mud of the trenches and the monstrous anger of the guns, and how appropriate that is as artistic response.
But while Bunce’s clowning teeters on the twee at times, it is also in many ways entirely fitting to the subject at hand, capturing something of the resilience of those forced to continue living while the men they love were slaughtered in far off fields. A raised chin, a clown nose and a willingness to keep laughing are as good a shield as any in the face of such devastation.