Even now, nearly 80 years since the end of World War Two, stories are still emerging of the roles woman took in the conflict, stories which often seem to have been lost under the weight of those of their male counterparts. Fire Embers Ash, initially performed as far back as 2015 before finding new life as an audio play, tells one of those stories – of the first all-female aviation team. But perhaps what makes it all the more remarkable now is that this was not a British or American regiment, but rather Russian: a crew who flew harassment and precision bombing missions against the German military, and were dubbed ‘the Night Witches’.
The play revolves around five members of the regiment, giving us a private glimpse into their lives. Set predominately within barracks, they idle away time talking, anticipating their next mission, or anxiously waiting for others to return from their latest flights. It’s perhaps because of this confined, barrack‑room environment that it feels a play very much at home in the basement space of Barons Court Theatre.
It’s clear writer Hailey Mashburn has done thorough research to ensure their stories are told with care and accuracy. Maya Waghorn as Lydia shows an obsession with bleaching her hair and altering her uniform to make it more feminine, which may seem things a writer might invent to embellish the story, adding a little laughter and lightness to proceedings, but it is in fact documented as being true! It’s these little titbits that draw us in, making us care about these women, and which then contribute to the emotional punch when we find not all of them make it to the end of the play.
Whilst the main action takes place in barracks, scenes when the woman take to the air are wonderfully presented. A small model plane is deployed, flown around the stage in the hand of one actor, much like a small child would, whilst a second uses a small handheld spotlight to great effect, casting shadows across the rear wall and adding to the overall impact. Meanwhile, the pilot is centre stage standing on a crate, only their head in the spotlight, with projected images on the wall behind them. It’s visually creative and helps to build tension in those moments, as we pray for their safe return to base.
The play makes us feel for each death. But more than that, it forces us to also feel for the remaining women, who have to wait apprehensively each time for the safe return of friends and comrades, and who wonder if they themselves might be the next to fail to make it home. The five all-female cast work well together to support the script, with maybe the strongest performances coming from Waghorn and Maria Masonou as Yevgeniya, who enthralls her companions with her innocence and dreams of the stars. And it’s because of these performances their deaths come especially hard.
Fire Embers Ash does these women the justice they deserve. Five female aviators are celebrated – five woman who signed up voluntarily and risked or even sacrificed their own lives to protect their country and the futures of others.
Playing in conjunction with Paved with Gold and Ashes, 3dumb Theatre has brought together two very different stories that deserve to be heard. Steeped in history, they feel perfect companions and ideal for this gloriously intimate venue, both bound together by telling the story of women unrecognised in history for too long. Women who, in all too many cases, had their lives tragically cut short.
Other cast: Henriette Laursen, Yvonne Maxwell, Stephenie Van Driesen
Written by: Hailey Mashburn
Directed, sound and lighting design by: Stephen Smith
Music composed by: Joseph Fury
Produced by: Threedumb Theatre
Fire Embers Ash plays at Barons Court Theatre until 27 January. Further information and bookings can be found here. It plays in conjunction with Paved with Gold and Ashes, both shows can be booked as a pair.