Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

Thu 6th – Sun 30th August 2015

reviews

Fergus Morgan

at 21:05 on 8th Aug 2015

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Rebecca Crookshank has undoubtedly led an interesting life, if her autobiographical one-woman show, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, contains a semblance of truth. Documenting her career in the Royal Air Force from her enlistment at the tender age of 17 to her eventual disenfranchisement and abandonment of the armed services in order to pursue performance. It is a show that undoubtedly has potential – idiosyncratic characters straight of Catch-22 and an arching storyline worthy of any Hollywood biopic – but this somehow does not translate into an engaging production, despite Crookshank’s laudable efforts.

Playing every character, Crookshank takes the audience back to her days as a fresh recruit at RAF Halton, where she befriends ‘Wingwoman’, an endearing Scouser and a recurring presence in the show. With the aid of a sporadically introduced projector, she then proceeds to chart her career. Crookshank acts as narrator and yet frequently drops into a range of supporting characters: the friendly Wingwoman, the aggressive commanding officer, the boorish fighter pilots. Crookshank's versatility is praiseworthy, and her command of accents impressive, but there is never much depth to her various roles and they all too often seem little more than stereotypes.

Staged with all the classic trappings of military locations – camouflage netting, bare tables and a pleasingly corrugated roof, there is no aesthetic problem with Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. But underlying it all, there is an uncomfortable glorification of military life.

Crookshank is evidently proud of her military exploits, as she has every right to be, but when she compares her achievements to those of her erstwhile schoolmates – particularly in so overtly autobiographical a show – this pride teeters towards arrogance. “All my schoolmates are sitting their A-levels, and I’m protecting our skies” is a typically objectionable boast. And when phrases such as “we aren’t a force for war, we are a force for peace” are uttered with no discernible irony, one expects the average fringe audience’s patience would be stretched to the limit.

There are occasionally hints of something deeper than this superficial self-importance, but these are far too occasional to really impact on the play. Mental health, alcoholism, misogyny, divorce – all are briefly touched upon, but never with any tangible emotion behind them. This is mostly just a mild irritation, but at times it seems wholly irresponsible, particularly when vicious sexist abuse is hurled at Crookshank by male comrades yet passed over without criticism or comment.

Crookshank is indoubtedly a talented performer, and her life story is obviously an exceptional one. Yet this presentation, with its paddling-pool shallowness and its abrasive celebration of military life, is certainly far from outstanding.

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Ella Wilks-Harper

at 23:19 on 8th Aug 2015

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Walking into the White Belly stage, I was pleased to find myself in a bunker-like space, adorned in army decorations and complete with a large crosshairs projected onto the backdrop. This eye-catching and evocative set immediately drew the audience into the autobiographical tale written and performed by Rebecca Crookshank – a tale that explored the realities of a career in the RAF as a woman.

Crookshank’s admirable ability to multi-role provided the audience with a wide range of characters: from the brutally harsh Corporal Bunting to the borderline alcoholic Wingwoman. Crookshank’s portrayal of her younger self was endearing, and the naivety of her character engendered a sympathetic dramatic irony. However, the difficult task of maintaining such a variety of accents became increasingly evident, as it became harder and harder to distinguish between characters.

It was peculiar to see how this play touched on a variety of harrowing themes in such light humour: from Crookshank’s growing alcoholism, her attempted suicide and tackling the vulnerability of women in the armed services. Although this comedic take allowed for such memorable scenes as a Corporal urinating in a pint glass, whilst proclaiming ‘never let your vulva dangle in the dust’, the eager attempts at comedy felt out of place in a play which presented some serious issues.

The plays feminist undertones were visited towards the end of the performance as Crookshank took the audience back to her time in the post-war Fauklands. The audience were simultaneously humoured yet horrified by the claustrophobic lad culture she was subjected to. This was further enhanced by a reel of homemade videos of a younger Crookshank, which showed the young woman continuously harassed by the lewd surrounding male soldiers. Why the audience found these uncomfortable moments particularly hilarious, I do not know.

Unfortunately, the ending felt slightly rushed, providing little detail and leaving many ends untied. This show obviously has a lot of potential as the raw material – Crookshank’s own life – is so obviously rich in drama and emotion. Perhaps if Crookshank tackled fewer roles and focused less on surface level comedy, it would serve as an intriguing account of what it’s really like to be a woman in the RAF.

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Comments

Iain Paton; 10th Aug 2015; 10:46:29

We shuffle into a white-ribbed interior that looks like a Nissen hut from a Second World War film. We're invited to take a seat by a khaki-clad woman, benign yet bearing an air of menace. Then Corporal Bunting is unleashed, on the poor novice Aircraftswoman Crookshank and the other recruits, with language that would baffle a gynaecologist and bring a blush to a drill-sergeant's cheeks. We follow Crooky and her comrades - played by Crookshank with an admirable range of accents and personae - through initial military training, perhaps familiar from dozens of films but based directly on personal experience, and into the arcane world of bunker-dwelling air defence, the lingering Cold War realm of Doctor Strangelove. At this point, the threads become discernible: the camaraderie of servicewomen in uniform, personal crises doused merrily in alcohol, a military profession dominated by rampant misogyny and abuse in spite of a few pioneering women, with the 1990s as backdrop - the distant era of Cool Britannia and the Spice Girls, before the world bursts into flames in 2001. The tragedies and challenges rapidly build up, with a suicide-attempt epiphany and abandonment amidst "28 arseholes" and flapping genitals in the bleakest part of the South Atlantic. Sexual harassment takes a far uglier turn, "just "banter" of course, and when Crookshank complains, she is offered the choice of pursuing the complaint or accepting a token back-seat flight in a F3 Tornado fighter aircraft. She chooses the flight and has never looked back.

This one-woman performance raises many issues between the laughs and raised eyebrows. Perhaps most uncomfortable is the way a culture of misogyny sits alongside genuine camaraderie and affection for Service life. Crookshank escaped unscathed and, she says, the better for it. Some may find this perspective uncomfortable and at odds with their own views on the military, but she is telling it like it was, and it is a compelling performance indeed.

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