Founded by Bips Mawson and Leila Sykes, Anonymous is a Woman is a new theatre company created in response to the underrepresentation of women within history and society, as we know it. Based in Worcestershire, the group are committed to delivering unheard stories of the feminine in order to address issues surrounding gender equality. Though the company works with both male and female artists, their work is entirely gynocentric, with the most recent of which, Think of England, currently showing at the 2018 Vault Festival.
Written by Madeline Gould, this immersive Blitz experience is set in England at the time of the Second World War. Based on a true story, the narrative follows Bette and Vera as they travel the country hosting tea dances in an effort to boost the morale of RAF soldiers. Under the cloak of an air raid, the ladies are joined by a troop of three officers and begin about their seemingly harmless duties only to dredge up a scandalous type of patriotism that threatens to sting everyone involved.
Set in a real-life air raid shelter, the space is – as its name suggests – cavernous. Stretching deep beneath Waterloo Station, wooden benches frame the edges of the tunnel to create a gangway. Fog hangs thickly in the air, bringing with it a damp perfume similar to that of mustard gas. The haze is penetrated by white lights upon the high concrete ceiling and shadows dance across the grey brickwork in reply to the rumble of nearby explosives as they hit their mark. Dressed in red polka dots and kept warm by a cream cardigan, Bette (played by Sykes) sits among the audience with Vera (Gould), a large wicker basket tucked neatly between them.
Bunting, a deck of cards and raffle tickets emerge from the straw-plaited hamper – an orange, a ration of butter and a pouch of ginger, create an exciting wartime pool. The pair speaks with Mancunian accents, their cadence blending well with the Canadian patter of their new friends: Lieutenant Dunne (Matthew Biddulph), Lieutenant Gagnon (Pip Brignall) and Corporal Lamb (Stefan Menaul). Gould’s script is jovial and brought to life candidly by the cast who display a powerful camaraderie throughout. All work hard to show unspoken tensions within the group, which is particularly helpful given the vastness of the shelter and its tendency to swallow dialogue.
However, this diligent characterisation could not mask the definite barrenness of the plot. A song sheet and a group dance provide a charming hiatus to the events that were promised to unfold, only to prove severely anti-climactic when they finally arrive onstage. As time passes, the company persisted to engage in a tiresome sequence of arguments and led each other in repetitive circles – a shame, as this misfortune could have been prevented with thorough editing.
Think of England has potential and the ideas behind its production are both relevant and valuable for twenty-first century audiences. Yet, the result is like a letter that is too small for its envelope, and what a mellifluous layer it was too.
Think of England is playing at The Vaults, Waterloo until February 11 2018
Photo: Ali Wright