The Falkland conflict; I remember it so well. I turned 22 during those alarming 74 days in 1982, and if it had escalated to full-scale extended war, I would have been ripe for conscription. Everyone watched and waited; hanging on every word reported by the Ministry of Defence’s Ian McDonald’s daily TV updates, gripped by Brian Hanrahan’s journalism: I counted them all out and I counted them all back. The nation was divided when the Belgrano was sunk as it was sailing away from the exclusion zone – your attitude towards it basically depended on whether you were a fan of Thatcher. It was the era of Gotcha! and Stick it up your Junta! And of course, the conflict was Thatcher’s golden key to No. 10 for the next eight years.
Rather than concentrating on the conflict’s effects on Thatcher and her government, Brad Birch’s new play tells the story of the Falkland Islanders themselves; their way of life, their environment, their national attachments (to Britain, and by nature of location, to Argentina), their relationships, their work, their leisure. 8,000 miles is a long way away, and few Brits ever get to visit the Falklands, so any extra insight into this loyal community is always welcome. Although they still had access to the pop music of the time, it still seems a world apart; letters take ages to arrive, and the prospect of coming to Britain to study is just a pipe dream for most. Still, if your boss is kindly disposed, he might allow you to let off steam with the occasional two-nighter, which sounds like the maddest hangover experience ever.
This is a bold attempt to remind ourselves of the conflict and also that the Falklands are still there, still part of Britain, and still loyal. The characterisations of the islanders are both creative and powerful, with much of the narrative coming from two outsiders – John, who has arrived from England as a teacher, and Gabriel who works at a scientific research establishment and is Argentinian. The experiences they share with us, both concerning their day-to-day lives before the invasion and how they survived both the occupation and the liberation, are told with moving realism and sensitivity.
However, these scenes are also juxtaposed with life back in Britain, where the Conservative government was very unpopular and Tory grandees were looking for a way to make Mrs Thatcher look good again – and the Falklands invasion was the perfect opportunity. However, these scenes are depicted in a completely different way; unlike the realism of the Falklanders, the government figures are caricatures. They don’t even have names, just numbers, and there’s an almost pantomime-like ridiculousness to the way they behave. As a result, for me, the UK scenes are much less successful than the Falklands scenes.
There’s also the problem that, with a lot to say, Brad Birch’s play gets very wordy and rather heavy going at times; to the extent that I found some of the narratives rather difficult to follow, with so many characters involved, including those who are not actually portrayed on stage, so there’s a lot of reported activity and conversation. As the play progresses, the writing improves as Mr Birch can concentrate on the immediate issue at hand – the arrival of the British troops and the recapture of the islands. But overall, the play does feel a bit chewy and long.
I wasn’t sure about the music; not so much the local playing at the drinking get-togethers, but more why the characters would break into the occasional rendition of, for example, Supertramp’s Goodbye Stranger or Spandau Ballet’s Gold. And it didn’t really aid our understanding of the play to have the islanders regularly picking up their buildings – houses, church, shop, etc – and moving them around the stage. I think the idea was to indicate whereabouts in Port Stanley each scene was set; but in reality it’s just a distraction.
There are some very good performances – Tom Milligan’s John and Eduardo Arcelus’ Gabriel stand out, as does Joanne Howarth’s Mrs Hargreaves and her impressive Mrs Thatcher impersonation. Joe Usher is excellent as Robbie, the British soldier who basically represents the entire British army. At our performance Oliver Hembrough who plays Geoff/Dad was indisposed and assistant director Mariana Aristizabal Pardo stood in, presumably at very short notice, and enabled the performance to go ahead – so three cheers to her!
A fine attempt to tell this important and still relevant story, and it’s a fascinating insight into the lives of the islanders themselves. It’s a little heavy, a little slow, and a little inconsistent. But there’s much more that’s good about it than isn’t.
Production photos by Ellie Kurttz