Shelter

Tue 12th – Sat 16th March 2013

reviews

Rose Bonsier

at 10:26 on 13th Mar 2013

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Staged by UWE based playwriting group Writers’ Block, this performance of R. Scott Frazer’s ‘Shelter’ was heart-felt and thought-provoking as it addressed the fear and despair felt by city dwellers during the Blitz. The second part of The War Trilogy, the play followed the O’Shea family over a couple of very important days in their lives during the bombing. Significantly, the audience sees them in their Anderson shelter more than their home as they discuss their hopes for a life not tainted by war and safe from the risk of death every night.

Although the script was a little heavy handed at points and perhaps relied a bit too much on stereotypes, the play was well written and very considered. It managed to evoke a realistic scene of 1940s Bristol through well placed description and using only a minimal set. Two benches were cleverly put together to make the interior of the Anderson shelter, and a coat stand in the corner allowed for small costume changes in the blackout.

Focusing on only seven main characters and set almost exclusively in the home, ‘Shelter’ still managed to present a strong cross-section of society and illustrated a variety of wartime experiences. The introduction of American sailor Johnny (Oliver Prain) and his whirlwind romance with young nurse Colleen (Betty Khiavi) was a little clichéd but really exemplified the dream of many young women to escape the war for a new life in America. Again, the relationship between Dermot (Robert Fannin) and Rosemary (Claire Vincent) demonstrates a couple from different backgrounds with conflicting views who are disillusioned in their marriage.

Most striking though were the characters of Hersh (Patrick McHugh) and Ani (Fiona Alcock), a Jewish brother and sister who had escaped from Germany only to be met with hostility by their English neighbours. It was clear that a lot of careful research had gone into building these characters, and the difficult and unsettled lives of refugees in England was heart-breakingly described. The pair, for example, had to pretend to be Polish in order be allowed to live and work but even then they were still viewed with suspicion and dislike. Hersh recounted the terrible difficulty in finding a safe place to go during the Blitz, stating that, unable to find a place in a public shelter or even on the other side of the city, he and his sister had been forced to walk out into the countryside in the snow to find safety. Only after Ani became too ill to do this did he ask the neighbours for help, just to be turned down by every one of them, reminding us that the generosity of the blitz spirit wasn’t extended to everyone.

As the last scene develops, the inevitability of the ending becomes quickly apparent. Whilst the dragging of Dermot behind a bench did feel a bit unintentionally comical, this final scene was movingly and strikingly performed. The cast lined up on a bench was visually very effective, as was the physical theatre and freeze frame used at the very close of the play. Fiona Alcock must also be congratulated for her hauntingly beautiful and very appropriate rendition of Vera Lynn’s wartime hit ‘We’ll Meet Again’. In its consideration of the grittiness wartime life ‘Shelter’ goes beyond the usual subject matter of student theatre to create an ambitious and greatly empathetic piece of work, bringing home to Bristol the hardship and terror of an experience that is now hard for us to imagine.

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