Returning to the Belgrade for a fourth time since its first appearance in 2008, One Night in November, by Coventry-born playwright Alan Pollock, is a haunting and poignant piece of writing, suffused with raw human emotion.
To say that the play itself is a love story wrapped in a conspiracy theory would not quite do justice to it. If you look beyond the central romance of the play ̶ transient and destructive as it is ̶ it’s possible to catch a glimpse of something far greater. Indeed, the true beauty of the play can be found in the rendering of the sheer visceral horror of the saturation bombardment of Coventry which took place on 14 November 1940, in which 30,000 incendiaries rained down and razed the city, claiming the lives of 568 of its inhabitants.
The pivotal meeting of the play’s protagonists occurs on a railway platform in Henley-in-Arden, where, amidst a cloud of steam, 18-year-old Katie from Coventry makes the acquaintance of Michael, a former Oxford don now working as a linguist at Bletchley Park. It is the stuff of romantic fiction, and yet this unlikely meeting in a wartime railway station leads to a serious relationship. Michael’s work is shrouded in secrecy, but when he and a colleague decipher a code that suggests Coventry is the target of a German bombing raid, he is faced with a moral dilemma. Should he commit treason and imperil valuable British intelligence by warning the one he loves?
Hamish Glen’s production captures the very unravelling of a city, confronting us with an apocalyptic scene of terror, and a full-frontal sensorial attack. It is as loud as it is bold, with terrifying sound effects and some startling pyrotechnics. Transported to an orange-skied city, the throbbing drone of bomber engines overhead, it feels as if a kind of hell has been realised on stage.
James Hornsby’s performance as Katie’s Communist father, Jack, is particularly powerful. It would be easy to dismiss Pollock’s characterisation of Jack as a resentful, belligerent man with a chip on his shoulder, and perhaps we are lured into that illusion early on in the play. But, the beginning of the aerial bombing heralds a change in this: what was a comfortable period drama with an endearing love story at its heart, is turned on its head. We see human nature laid bare in Hornsby’s portrayal of a father crippled with fear when he is asked to drive an ambulance during the bombardment. Later, as the recently-widowed man returns to the wreckage of his home, his plangent, guttural baying is upsetting to watch.
The play has been tweaked since it was last performed in 2010 and the full impact of the shocking rape scene has been lost, replaced by an ambiguous and somewhat hurried scene, the events of which are only made explicit in Joan’s later assertion that ‘somebody raped me’. Pollock’s allegation that Churchill knew of the air raid in advance and could have done more to protect the city still smacks of conspiracy theory, and lacks the depth to be convincing. That aside, One Night in November has an astonishing effect on its audience, resurrecting the hurt and anger nursed by the inhabitants of Coventry.
Verity Kirk as Bletchley bluestocking, Sheila, presents a strong antithesis to the simple, unpretentious, yet rather insipid Katie (Charlotte Ritchie) with a thick public school drawl. She excels as the fiercely bright, outspoken eccentric, bringing something of the sexual predator to the role. Her dominance contrasts with Jason Langley’s performance as the powerless and frustrated intellectual, Michael. Langley’s performance is one of considerable complexity, a broken man faced with a moral quandary, his emotional anguish palpable against the taunting indifference of his Bletchley counterparts. His subsequent descent into madness is deeply affecting, and Langley injects his final scene with a note of catharsis. As the play draws to a close, an atmosphere of mourning permeates the stage, which translates as a modern-day threnody to the lost city of Coventry.