First published in The Times, Thursday August 25 2016
The impact of war and conflict on individuals is always a recurrent theme across the fringe theatre programme. Yet few productions address the subject with the lyricism of this new piece from Open Sky productions. The show is the creative brainchild of the writer Lisle Turner, who based much of its content on the experiences of his grandfather, a veteran of World War II.
We first discover Jack, the protagonist (a fine performance from Robin Berry), in old age, seated in an armchair, watching news reports from the first Gulf War on television. Scenes from Operation Desert Storm stir increasingly vivid memories of serving in North Africa, including participating in the 1941 Siege of Tobruk and escorting a German prisoner of war across the Sahara.
The heat and dust is brilliantly evoked in Claire Coaché’s production by the fluid lighting design, created by Ben Hughes, which continually transforms Andrew Purvin’s deceptively simple staging. There are further visual flourishes here, too, including snippets of animations projected onto falling sand and lampshades, and a sequence in which Berry’s head emerges from the seat of Jack’s armchair – now transformed into a bunker in the desert.
Turner’s script covers much ground with admirable brevity. As well as the scenes in the desert, when Jack was known as “Dowser” for his ability to source and trap water, we learn of his life on Civvy Street, his abilities as a boxer and dancer, and family life with his wife and many children, much of it conveyed through passages of movement or the use of simple props.
The one drawback is the disjointed nature of the narrative, which Turner lays out like the scattered pieces of a jigsaw, with the complete picture only becoming clear by the end. At times, particularly in the early stages, aspects of this man’s life and slow decline could have been spelled out more explicitly.
Otherwise, the spare nature of the writing feels true to Jack’s character, a reticent man, not given to self-examination, who expresses himself mainly through his physicality. Coaché’s production impact creeps up on you with cunning stealth – it’s not until the end that you realise its quiet power.