Queen's Theatre Hornchurch
On the night of September 2, 1916, Londoners watched and cheered as a “baby-killer” - German airship bombing civilian targets – was shot down in flames by a tiny bi-plane.
That moment is thrillingly evoked in “Paper Planes”, this year's Community Musical at the Queen's Hornchurch.
This is the deal – this renowned producing house devotes its creative and technical forces to devising and staging a new work, and the people of East London and Essex – sixty of them this year, aged between 7 and 80 – bring their enthusiasm and their talent, as well as sell-out houses for the four-night run.
The packed world première was a great occasion – an aircraft of the period parked in the foyer, Birdman cocktails in the bar [vodka, schnapps and cranberry juice, since you ask] and a pub pianist who would have been very much at home in the Ten Bells.
That East End boozer is where our tale begins – told by the Guv'nor, keeping the legend alive in the very bar where our hero went in search of refreshment and female companionship.
He is William Leefe Robinson – Billy the Birdman – who wins the VC for his brave deed. In this romanticised version of his life – by Dave Ross, Gerry Sweeney, Patrick O'Sullivan and Steven Markwick – he's given love interest, “champagne and stout” class conflict and a rather good theme song, “Up Here Above The Clouds”. And a clichéd comic-book sadistic Hun [Chris Taylor].
Aerial combat is never going to be easy to stage, but the tall tower works well against the back projection, and Billy's first flight, with model houses and a lovely toy train, is superbly staged. The young Leefe Robinson [Harleigh Stenning] runs through the show, toy plane held aloft, one of several motifs which give the story its strong structure, along with the paper planes, the seagulls, the claustrophobia …
Impressive performances from the non-professional players. Tomas Martinsen-Hickman outstanding as “Leefe” - he looks and sounds absolutely right, and has an easy charisma and a great singing voice too. Rebecca Swan is his rough diamond Lilly, making the most of the lovely “Cinderella's Shoes”, Jamie Brown his brother Harold, Jane Harder his snobby mother.
Many memorable cameos, too: the Recruiting Sergeant [“Who's for glory?”], the Major, Doll from the pub, the Guv'nor who guides us through the narrative. But much of the strength of this piece is the ensemble work: the bloodied nurses, the school pals, the RFC quartet, the knees-up for Kaiser Bill. Patrick O'Sullivan's production is full of striking stage pictures and ingenious devices: the escape door, the letter duet, the German subtitles, the “hole”, the St Bee's reprise, the zeppelin itself, a really menacing presence. Even Billy's kitsch apotheosis – paper planes pointing heavenwards – suits the mood and style of the times.
William Leefe Robinson – one of the generation who went straight from school to the Great War – never lived to find happiness in peacetime. But he had his moment of glory, and, like the Queen's Theatre, found fame far beyond the borough. Born in India, educated in Oxford and Cumbria, he's nevertheless embraced as a local lad since he flew his Zeppelin-killer missions from Sutton's Farm, not a mile, as the air ace flies, from the stage door.
So his story, and this amazing show, are just the ticket for this theatre, and for this time, as we commemorate the outbreak of the war to end all wars.
production photography: Mark Sepple