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Published on Tuesday, 15 May 2012

4 stars

The Warren (venue website)
13-15 May, 6:00pm-7:15pm
Reviewed by Richard Stamp

 Parental Guidance. Under-17's must be accompanied by an adult.
 Warning: Contains flashing lights.

We’ve all heard about Britain’s wartime Home Guard; but if Hitler had invaded in the dark days of 1940, our country had one further line of defence.  The hush-hush network of Auxiliary Units – otherwise known as the scallywags – were both ordinary people and secret soldiers, fully trained and ready to die in defence of a conquered land.  It’s no laughing matter.  But it’s a fitting back-story for this well-developed comedy, which remixes our most familiar wartime stereotypes into a fresh, entertaining and ultimately moving play.

It’s a highly-visual and physical performance, from an experienced and professional company; the action stays slick and surprising, with the pared-down set yielding numerous hidey-holes for a scallywag to pop up from.  The pace dips sometimes, and the mechanics can be distractingly visible, but there’s plenty of creative imagery, often focussed on the inherent comedy of a big man in a small space.  There are some finely-honed set-pieces to enjoy, too, one of which covers up a blatant expository lump with enough visual chutzpah that I just about forgave it.

The scallywags are broad caricatures – the boy scout, the gamekeeper, the aristocrat – with one interesting addition, a small-town dentist who barely has the confidence to speak to his own wife.  The acting is broad-brush too, but none the worse for that, and the contrasts between the rag-tag crew prove another rich source of humour.  Watch out in particular for their faces, all boggle-eyes and stiff upper lips, which raised a chuckle every time they snapped to attention or squared up for a fight.

So far, so Dad’s Army.  But then, suddenly – in an unexpectedly sensitive scene, where a would-be scallywag confesses to his war-veteran father – the genre swings around.  Things are serious now, with the enemy at the door, and within moments we’re thrust into the business end of a classic war movie.  There’s comradeship, sacrifice, and some genuine excitement, as the physical acting continues in a more serious vein.

I could have lived without the incongruous Gestapo puppet, and I’m not sure why they devote so much time to the irrelevant propagandist Lord Haw-Haw, but otherwise they give us all the essentials of a desperate foray behind enemy lines.  True, these new themes are caricatures too – king and country, trust and honour, life and death – but that’s exactly why they feel so comforting and right.  It builds, inevitably, to a poignant finale, and the petty squabbles we laughed at earlier seem entirely trivial now.  It’s an audacious swerve, and they absolutely pull it off.  Jolly good show.

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These are archived reviews of shows from Brighton 2012.  We keep our archives online as a courtesy to performers, and for readers who'd like to research previous years' reviews.