This Easter step into Omnibus to find the theatre entirely transformed, the audience sit as if inside the dining room of April’s Bed & Breakfast, in the midst of a surreal world where the action takes place over one Spring evening. Watch as April, accompanied by her two guests Pam and Tom, prepares for the imminent arrival of a band of young men looking for a place to stay.
We learn of Pam’s search for the grave of her great-grandfather and her love of taking photographs of cemeteries. We learn of Tom’s love of the army and his job as a peddler of helmet-shaped chocolates. And, we watch April, a sixty-year-old woman still wanting excitement, attention, vitality at the very age when she is deemed invisible.
Spring Offensive at the Omnibus in Clapham takes a wry look at the First World War Tourism industry and those making a buck from it. The soldiers’ DNA still lies in the soil, which to this day spews out shells and shrapnel. Inspired by her trips to the WW1 sites dotted across the Western Front, Victoria Willing was struck by the atmosphere and sparseness of the countryside, and how one hundred years had not been long enough to cover up the nightmare of total warfare. She felt moved to write about the legacy of war through a character-driven narrative, which in the aftermath of some of the more traditional commemorations of the centenary of WW1, seeks to tell the story of a pivotal moment in history in a different way.
Victoria Willing chats about her career and Spring Offensive:
Q: Your career spans tv, film and stage. Which three productions immediately spring to mind as being landmarks for you?
Victoria: ‘The Inbetweeners’ was a real surprise. I’d auditioned for what at the time was two small scenes in a sit-com, and it became an ongoing relationship for about five years. It was amazing to be caught up in something that became such a massive success.
‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time’ was a very important job for me. The discipline of doing eight shows a week for a year was new to me and a challenge, but the audience loved it so much and the theatre felt charged with excitement every night. The National Theatre is an institution like no other – it really looks after its employees and you feel very much part of a team.
The job that I’m asked about most, though, is when I puppeteered on ‘A Muppet Christmas Carol’. I think I did a couple of dog puppets in a window, and some voices of naughty rats, but that’s the one that people are most curious about!
Q: In 2008 you commenced an MA in Writing for Performance. How tough was it to embark on the MA and what inspired the decision to study again?
Victoria: I’d been an actress for a long time, but although I wanted to write, and had written a few comedy sketches with a friend, I’d had no formal training as a writer and felt it was important as a way of building confidence and skill, so I applied to do the MA. It’s not easy starting something new in your forties. I was older than the other students and the tutors, and sometimes felt a bit isolated. What was really good about it was that I was forced to come up with ideas – TV sit-com ideas, movie ideas, radio ideas. I’ve been able to elaborate on those ever since, and they’ve been the basis of a lot of my writing since.
Q: Looking back to your earliest writing – what can you tell us about the first play that you wrote?
Victoria: I was fourteen and at an after school drama group in Islington, ‘Anna Scher’s’, which is still going. In those days it was in a hall in a council estate. You handed your ten pence over as you went in each time. My contemporaries included Phil Daniels and the Kemp brothers. I wrote a short comedy called ‘Goodnight Ladies’, in which a thirteen-year-old Martin Kemp played a petty thief who finds himself in a house of ill repute and has to hide from the cops by dragging up and then the policeman falls for him. It was pretty dreadful, and probably heavily influenced by my love for ‘Some Like it Hot’, but Anna praised it highly and I managed to put in plenty of David Bowie and Lou Reed music, so that was all that mattered. I didn’t write anything again for over thirty years though.
Q: And to the present – what can you tell us about Spring Offensive? And, how did the story come about and evolve?
Victoria: When I met my husband seven years ago he took me on trips to various sites dotted along the Western Front a couple of times, as he has studied and researched the First World War extensively. I was struck by the bleakness of the landscape and by the cemeteries positioned all around the area. I initially wrote a monologue which was performed at the Landor Theatre in Clapham in 2012 as part of a new writing event. I then worked on making it a full-length play, and we held a rehearsed reading of an earlier draft at the Soho Theatre in January 2016, directed by Marie McCarthy, Omnibus’ artistic director, and starring the wonderful Alison Steadman, who gave up her time for free – she simply loved the script. The play explores the management of grief – on an individual and national level – and it’s funny. So far I can only do comedy, it seems.
Q: One of the central themes in Spring Offensive “shines a spotlight on women in middle age” – could you elaborate on this?
Victoria: There’s a sort of vertigo you feel as you get older when you realise that although you still feel like the same person you were at thirty, but perhaps with a few aches and pains, the world appears to see you very differently if it sees you at all. Just when the world expects you to behave like a benign cozy presence, I think inside we are raging at the new mantle we have to wear. I’m not sure I buy the notion that getting old is a relief because you can say what you want and you don’t care what people think. Women care alright, but the disconnect is so palpable that there’s no point even trying to belong. I wanted to explore the truth – the schism between the low expectations and the high desires and needs that woman can have as they age.
Q: Omnibus, the South London theatre is championing work by women – since your career began, what has changed and what has stayed the same? What changes would you like to see in the industry?
Victoria: When my career began the repertory theatre scene was already on its uppers, but Equity was still a union that you had to be part of to get work, and you had to be pretty canny and work really hard to get in. Privilege and money have always been an advantage, that hasn’t changed, but the erosion and demonisation of unions is partly behind people being forced to subsidise themselves and that has made it harder for working class actors to be on some sort of level playing field.
Q: Why should everyone get along to see Spring Offensive?
Victoria: I write stories and situations that I really want to see on stage, and that I haven’t really seen before. It’s funny, it’s moving, and it’s wild.
Q: What next for you in 2017?
Victoria: I’m starting to think about the next play, but mostly I’m thinking about the garden and what is going to come into bloom over spring. None of us really know what’s next.
Victoria Willing grew up in London and Portugal. She staged her first play aged 14 (whist attending the Anna Scher children’s theatre), starring a 13-year-old Martin Kemp. As an actress Willing has performed extensively in theatre, film and television including regular roles in comedies such as The Inbetweeners and Him & Her. She returned to study in 2008 for an MA in Writing for Performance at the Central School of Speech and Drama. Her hit comedy play Could it be Forever? (co-written by Lucy Fitchett) received five star reviews at The Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2010. Her other plays include Short Crabs, which started out as a short play for Sorts New Writing (Landor Theatre). Willing wrote Spring Offensive whilst performing for a year in the West End in the cast of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. She is an Associate Writer at Omnibus.
A dark comedy about war, lost boys and fighting for survival
BY OMNIBUS ASSOCIATE WRITER
Welcome to the best Bed and Breakfast on the Somme…
Expat April runs a quality establishment on the site of some of
the bloodiest battles of the First World War. Death surrounds it.
And sheep, lots of sheep.
There’s dinner to be served and history to pay tribute to.
The guests are coming, the sheep are closing in.
The table is set for an evening they’ll all remember.
Running Time: 75 mins
Tue 18th – Sat 20th April
Writer – Victoria Willing
Director – Marie McCarthy
Producer – Juliet Clark
Associate Producer – Michelle Owoo
Designer – Grace Smart – (winner of Linbury Prize)