Kandinsky theatre company’s The Winston Machine observes Remembrance at first, second and third hand through three generations of a family in the shadow of the Second World War, neatly exploring how nostalgia influences our understanding in the present.
Even the National Museum of the Royal Navy admits that Remembrance is a recent phenomenon. In less than twenty years, we have gone from remembering the sacrifice and slaughter of fallen relatives memorialised on cenotaphs to rose-tinted Blitz spirit cosplay. How did this come to be and what function does it serve? What bright and optimistic futures, as pictured in the darkest days of the war, do we abandon when we come to seek comfort in a mis-remembered past? When the lived memory of war is no longer present in those remembering, how can we know the reality of these past lives?
Becky (Rachel-Leah Hosker) is happily living in her home town with her bread-and-butter boyfriend, posting to Instagram remembered accounts of her grandparents falling in love at tea dances during the Blitz. In reliving a war she never experienced, she lives in a fantasy past of her father’s creation. Suddenly another past re-emerges when her childhood sweetheart (Nathaniel Christian) returns from a short lived success as a musician in London, casting doubt on her future with her current boyfriend.
The question of how we process secondhand stories of war hits closest to home for Becky’s father (Hamish Macdougall) who remembers his life growing up in the shadow of his father (also Nathaniel Christian) and experiences parental trauma passed on to the next generation in the form of anger. Excusing his father’s rage, his mother fills her son with stories of his father’s gallantry, reframing events into another configuration. We see him process his own trauma, reshaping the past through warped encouragement of his daughter’s interest in 40s cosplay as well as the production of cynical, jingoistic white-nationalism, and the subsequent online praise he receives. His story is sensitively managed but thankfully this character is not shown as entirely blameless for the racism that he spews online.
The play’s flashbacks to the parallel lives of Becky’s grandfather and grandmother are typically B-movie camp and are re-remembered as cheesy romances; “oh take this photograph and remember me my darling!” These play excellently to Hosker and Christian’s sense of humour. This is a fantastic cast, able to jump comfortably across roles and each with a wonderful comic ability, much needed for a show that never sits still and is keen to cover such a breadth of time and emotion.
An impressive performance from Christian allows the play to crumble into an exciting and frenzied climax as his character comes to terms with being caught up in a whirlwind of jingoism. In this astute act, race and racism enter the play, recasting what was cutesy memory as some bizarre exhibition of white colonialism. It is very much to the testament of this clever and considerate cast, director James Yeatman and dramaturg Lauren Mooney that such a fantastic show can be devised, with insightful and new consideration of how the past affects us all.
The cherry on top is Zac Gvirtzman’s impressive score that keeps the play tight and running with such excellent pace. It is as remarkable and inventive as the action and provides an excellent world in which our performers can play.
This is an exceptional show which will be challenging for some audiences. Kandinsky should be highly praised for such an inventive and holistic way of investigating what influences the composition of a national identity.
Devised by: Nathaniel Christian, Rachel-Leah Hosker, Hamish Macdougall
Director: James Yeatman
Dramaturg & Producer: Lauren Mooney
Associate Director: Segen Yosef
Production Manager: Crin Claxton
Co-designers: Joshua Gadsby & Naomi Kuyck-Cohen
Composer: Zac Gvirtzman
Sound Designer: Kieran Lucas
Stage Manager: Grace Hans
The Winston Machine plays at New Diorama until 19 February. Further information and booking via the below link.