at The William Loveless Hall, Wivenhoe
Still standing, resolutely confronting the invader from the East, pill boxes all across East Anglia. But facing the wrong way, it turned out, when the barge-borne Nazi invasion finally came from the Southern ports.
At least that's the alternative future graphically portrayed in Ivan Cutting's new play for Eastern Angles, now embarked on its region-wide tour.
Private Resistance tells the story of the Auxiliary Units, small bands of local men [and boys] who would harass the foe from within, slowing the advance of Operation Sealion, keeping Britain fighting while we waited for the Yanks to finish off Pacific business and ride to our rescue.
Civilians, meanwhile, were exhorted to Keep Calm and Carry On, by a poster now ubiquitous. But there were two other slogans, also printed against the possibility of invasion, of which "Freedom Is In Peril, Defend It With All Your Might" is used in Fabrice Serafino's ingenious set design.
This very British guerilla warfare, and the stresses of the Home Front, are cleverly combined in the story of an unconventional extended family. Young Wilf [Fred Lancaster], keen on cricket and cycling, motherless, his father at the front, lives with his aunt [Frances Marshall] whose doctor husband is a POW. Her brother-in-law [Matt Addis] will be the commander of the Unit, and recruits the local gamekeeper [Phil Pritchard]. The war brings two outsiders to the village – Prue [Bishanyia Vincent] a young ATS girl, and Alan, a freedom fighter from up north [Pritchard again] who will galvanize sleepy Suffolk for the May uprising of 1943.
The narrative cleverly combines history with conjecture – the cattle trucks from Manchester to Harwich, the Government in Canadian exile, a Vichy independence for Scotland. And details add authenticity – the John Bull printing outfit, the vintage cricket bat, the crystal set. The costumes, too, had a period precision – the schoolboy, the Land Girl, the revolutionary.
Naomi Jones's engaging production tracks the developing characters as the calendar pages turn, with some wonderfully moving moments – the two women giggling at their first encounter, and much later dancing the Beguine. And the pacy panic as uniforms are burnt, the BBC goes off the air [later to re-surface as Free BBC in Manchester], and church bells toll the invasion. Perhaps most effective of all, the six characters recalling their last moments, with evocative word pictures of wheat fields and the wide Suffolk sky.
But as the characters observe, it's often looks rather than words that convey our feelings, and it's not always Jerry, it's sometimes us – heartlessly handing over refugees, for instance. But who's to say how we might have acted, in this alternative England, with the enemy at our door.
This gripping drama is an ideal vehicle for sharing a little-known chapter of our history, Churchill's underground units which were never spoken of, even fifty years later. Not many of those resistance fighters, who stood ready in 1940, survive now; soon the few remaining Operational Bases and the pill boxes will be the only witnesses to this very secret war.
production photograph by Mike Kwasniak