The press material for The Winston Machine describes this new play as both an epic family saga (told through two love stories) and as a ‘contemporary state-of-the-nation show exploring how our relationship with the mythology of WWII shapes our present’. Unfortunately, the promise of a meaningful multi-generational saga remains largely unrealised despite impressive performances from the multi-rolling three-handed cast of Nathaniel Christian, Rachel-Leah Hosker and Hamish MacDougall. The second theme – whilst intriguing and intellectually powerful – is present in the work but arrives muddled amongst a series of imagistic sketches that feel more like the stuff of workshops rather than complete professional theatre. There are brilliant and urgent ideas in The Winston Machine, but this production is a promising first draft in need of greater structuring and clarity of dramatic intent. The exploration of how specific mythology from the 20th century shapes our present – and in particular limits it – is fertile ground and, in places during this show, becomes intellectually and theatrically electric. But to layer an already layered idea with a family saga on top requires an unshakeable sense of purpose as to why these ideas can only be told through the chosen dramatic vehicle. Such firmness of purpose is currently absent – which is frustrating because germs of brilliance are present but obscured by the clutter of unfinished writing.
Director James Yeatman realises a strong imagistic tableau with tightly executed sound and lighting cues from his creative team along with an appealing and practical angled platform set design from co-designers Joshua Gadsby and Naomi Kuyck-Cohen. As performance art, there are captivating theatrical moments. The action opens with Nathaniel Christian and Rachel-Leah Hosker enacting a war-time melodrama pastiche that is funny, precisely observed, and tautly executed. We are welcomed to a world of confected notions of duty and love. Moved into the modern age, we meet Hosker again, this time with romantic partner Hamish MacDougall, experiencing a present-day emotional conflict about settling down and buying a house. Inner emotional tensions manifest in droll bits of theatrical business like the repeated signing of the leaving card of a co-worker. The sketches whirl through time and moods and we get the impression that the legacy of archetypes about ‘home’, ‘family’, ‘duty’ and ‘freedom’ have been hard-wired from previous generations and, in particular, their real and make-believe stories of war-time Britain.
The threatening presence of a ‘1940s weekender’ repeatedly described as ‘weird’ by the modern-day characters, but set up as also a rare paid performance opportunity for struggling musicians, has tremendous theatrical potential. As the work climaxes, the modern characters find themselves in a sort of Sartre-esque Hui Clos of Churchill worship and mandated nostalgia. They literally cannot find the exit and are forced to endure a conference venue transformed as ‘Memory Lane’. MacDougall appears as a menacingly imposing sort of Winston Churchill tribute act. His presence acts as a reminder of the enforced nationalistic worship and fetishisation that permeates modern Britain with terrifying vigour whilst also limiting the reality and futures of people like the aspiring musician played winningly by Christian. A monologue with a staccato rendition, that conjures up endless social media posts and memes, reveals his present-day dreams and ambitions reduced to smaller and smaller expectations because of the tyranny of a limited notion of British identity derived from treating its history simplistically and collectively enforcing idolatry of characters like Churchill.
Aspects of The Winston Machine are very exciting but its lack of precision with its modern-day characters’ purposes is frustrating. I’d like to see a single-minded writer harness the vivid and compelling material offered and construct a stronger spine for this play.
Review by Mary Beer
At the height of the Blitz, Charlotte is in a passionate affair with a Spitfire pilot, fighting fascism in red lipstick and living each day like her last. Eighty years later, her granddaughter Becky is stuck in her hometown, cooking dinners for her dad and singing old songs at other people’s weddings, dreaming of a better time.
The 1940s are more real to Becky than her life, but when a friend moves back to town, she’s forced to face the present.
What happens when there’s no war left to fight?
Director James Yeatman
Dramaturg & Producer Lauren Mooney
Associate Director Segen Yosef
Production Manager Crin Claxton
Co-designers Joshua Gadsby & Naomi Kuyck-Cohen
Composer Zac Gvirtzman
Sound Designer Kieran Lucas
Stage Manager Grace Hans
Engagement Producer Peter Laycock
Company of performer-devisers
25 January – 19 February 2022