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Laughs and loss in play that’s set on the Somme

Battlefield tourism is the unlikely subject of actor-turned-writer Victoria Willing’s new comedy

12 April, 2017 — By Jane Clinton

Former Camden School for Girls pupil Victoria Willing wrote Spring Offensive after being inspired by visits to the scenes of First World War battles in France. Photo: Anna Hull

IT sounds like a cosy domestic scene: a small B&B in France, some English tourists and an evening of chat.

But all is not as it seems, and this contrast between appearances and reality is a theme that runs right the way through Victoria Willing’s new comedy, Spring Offensive.

The bed and breakfast is situated on the Somme and there is a palpable sense of the loss of those who perished in the Great War.

Victoria’s trips to the scenes of the carnage of the First World War in France with her husband left a lasting impression on her.

“I remember somebody telling me that after a big storm or rain the earth would be churned up as well as old bits of shells and lunch boxes and belt buckles belonging to the soldiers,” she says. “There is a feeling that it is still alive under there, that although the soldiers are dead there is still a feeling of history pushing up. It gave me the sense of things being just beneath the surface but that it is impossible to conceal stuff for long.”

The same is true of the guests at the bed and breakfast: they too have experienced loss, and eventually – inevitably – their masks slip and their real characters emerge.

It’s an immersive set so we, the audience, will be sitting in the B&B where the owner is played by Victoria herself. She is ex-pat April (who also keeps sheep nearby). April is 60 but the idea of ageing is anathema to her as she wants to continue to act as she pleases and retain a youthful vigour and recklessness.

There is Tom who does battlefield tours and sells First World War-themed souvenirs including chocolate-shaped helmets. And Pam who is looking for the grave of her great -grandfather and loves taking photographs of cemeteries.

As the evening in the B&B progresses we are aware of the sheep encroaching nearby and Victoria sees them, in part, as a metaphor for the horror of war.

“It was like lambs to the slaughter,” she adds.

The play looks at war tourism and the commercialisation of war: the hotels, the tours and souvenirs. There is also the notion of national identity and the way we commemorate the war dead.

“I am half Portuguese so issues of identity and national identity interest me,” she says. “I am also interested in the way we memorialise. Going to the scenes of war in France you see quite a lot of ritualised grief – books of commemorations; the gravestones. There are certain kinds of memorials – there is a particular way of doing it. To this day people go to these places to mourn a relative they did not know. But this death holds a significance in the course of this family’s family tree and history.”

A former pupil at Camden School for Girls, Victoria has long had links to Camden. She grew up in Albert Street and her mother, the artist Paula Rego, has a studio in Camden and lives in Hampstead.

Victoria’s daughter, Grace Smart, who is a theatre designer and is designing Spring Offensive, lives in Kentish Town. Victoria herself continued to live in Camden for many years but now lives in Turnpike Lane.

Although she has been primarily an actor (she began writing the play while she was starring in the West End in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time), she has also worked as a puppeteer on films including The Muppet Christmas Carol. She describes herself as a “fledgling writer” and is an associate writer at the Omnibus Theatre in Clapham where the play is showing.

While Spring Offensive is a comedy, its overarching theme is that of loss: it could be the losses of the First World War, the loss of a person, a relationship, a thing or lost youth.

“I wanted to take the atmosphere of that place and how people are and illustrate and explore that feeling,” she says. “Those feelings of the people left behind after those poor young men have been killed on a grand scale.”

• Spring Offensive runs at the Omnibus Theatre, 1 Clapham Common Northside, SW4 0QW, from April 18-30. No performance Monday 24.
Call 020 7498 4699 or visit www.omnibus-clapham.org for details.

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