FROM BOMBER CREW TO ZIMMER DAYS: A TRIBUTE FAIRLY PAID
As the aged heroes of World War II slip gradually away, the urge to bear witness feels ever stronger. In Rattigan’s recently revived FLARE PATH (another production touring this autumn by the way) we were reminded of the surreal life of the young bomber crews, under fire over Germany at night and drinking in a quiet country pub near the base by lunchtime. Now screenwriter William Ivory draws on the memories of his late father – who died in 2008 – to give us a heartfelt, unsentimental evocation of an aged man, once a rear-gunner in war and now washed up, beached, trapped in a failing body in a warden-sheltered flat.
One tributes he pays is to demonstrate how funny, how deadpan, how salty such old men can be. James Bolam always brings a marvellous honest solidity to his acting, and drop-dead timing: he is wholly convincing both as an octogenarian grump who can barely get upright on his zimmer frame, and in flashback as the bright-eyed youth. Sometimes, movingly, he crouches holding that frame as he once held the machine-gun mounts. He catches the cheerful black-humoured obscenity of servicemen’s talk, and takes you momentarily into old long-suppressed fears.
The set is simple – by Laura McEwen – the bedsit kitchenette, chair and screened commode of planet eldercare; but the window in the door can become a full moon, the bomber’s moon, and the ceiling fan crossing the lights overhead suddenly evokes a plane in clouds as the soundscape (by Damian Coldwell) rises to a jet-engine roar mingled with urgent voices from long ago.
The story is just a few weeks’ interaction between old Jimmy and his new carer David – Steve John Shepherd. Jimmy is no soft touch: not unkind but sceptically cantankerous, irritated about “the big lesbian, Moira from Mobility” who keeps giving him wholemeal bread, and infuriated when the geeky, nervous Shepherd comes at him with God-bothering chat about religion and formulaic social-worker phrases. Jimmy’s mind is all there – even if his hand trembles, he recites his multiple medications with the rat-tat professional accuracy of the technical gunner he once was., when the only medication was the routine issue of amphetamines to keep men flying. And his mind is still haunted, with weary tolerance, by the last traumatic flight when his comrades died shot down over Nuremberg and he survived by a fluke and was captured in the snow.
There is gripping sincerity throughout , though it is only in the second half that we get a clearer view of the life-crisis which made David take this work, and which may yet destroy him as surely as it did some wartime comrades who capitulated to the great fear. There was a moment near the end when I feared Ivory might be going to get out of it a bit too pat, either religiously or otherwise. But he pulls it off, with the old man’s witness to the past moving towards healing for the troubled young man in the present. There’s fidelity to that World War 2 spirit, in it at the end, to that Rattigan restraint. And a small coup-de-theatre which I should have seen coming and didn’t. So the matinee audience rose to its feet, for an honest performance but as much for its grandparents , and the pity and gallantry of seventy years ago.
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