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Their Finest Hour by Steve Darlow at Waterloo East Theatre

In May 2020, a major milestone in the Royal Air Force was hit as Group Captain (retired) John ‘Paddy’ Hemingway became the last surviving RAF pilot from the Battle of Britain, the final member of that august band, “The Few”. Now, he is the only one alive that took part in the battle and can remember the summer of 1940 when Britain stood on the brink of losing the war. Thankfully, the memories of that time are kept alive and preserved for posterity, not only in fictional movies and books but in transcripts of interviews where these gallant airmen told their stories of those days. Now all this leads me to the Waterloo East Theatre where Steve Darlow has taken some of these interviews and the human stories behind them and produced a new show called Their Finest Hour which tells their tale.

Their Finest HourIn an old attic, a family (Alice Moore, Alex Cosgriff, Emma Kemp, Jack Fairey, Laura Hannawin, Peter Pearson, and Tabitha Baines) gather. They are all soberly dressed because they have just returned from Bert’s funeral. Bert was an RAF veteran who served during the second world war. He didn’t really talk about his time in the forces and the family hadn’t probed too much – after all, it was all such a long time ago. But, as they start to clear out the attic, they find an old suitcase which, when they open it, is full of memorabilia from those far-off days. One thing that really takes their interest is a picture of two young, healthy men in uniform. On the back, there is a note from Bert ‘Me and Jamie, a bit worse for wear after a night out in London.’ ‘That was a night to remember. I’ll say no more. Within 24 hours of that picture, we were over Germany again.‘ As they delve into the case, the years roll back, and Jamie (Patrick Lock) tells the story of the people behind the headlines of world war II.

Despite the conventional theatrical opening Their Finest Hour is not a play so much as a series of individual stories, collected by Writer Steve Darlow, supplemented with poetry and songs of the era. Peter Pearson, as various senior officers and politicians, provides the historical timeline while Jamie talks us through the people we are going to meet and their stories, including his own. There are a lot with over 100 characters appearing during the roughly 110 minutes runtime. We had everyone from a young schoolboy to Winston Churchill in the mix and I have to say how impressed I was with the eight-strong cast, all of whom, apart from Patrick Lock, played multiple roles using a combination of costume, mannerisms and voices to give life to the spoken words. I liked that Peter Pearson didn’t give us an impression of Churchill or Chamberlain but instead, delivered the words with the authority and gravitas that their speeches deserved. My favourite part of the show was a version of Rudyard Kipling’s epic poem “If” written by an airman that had been recaptured after escaping from a prisoner of war camp and had plenty of time to contemplate things while sitting in ‘The Cooler’.

I really enjoyed the tales of life from ‘ordinary’ people caught up in an extraordinary and probably unique situation and would have liked the entire show to concentrate on them. I would have missed out The Great Escape and the Dam Busters elements. Possibly, it’s my age or my RAF background but I think both stories, whilst amazing, have been done to death. I also loved the songs which were well delivered – through a live piano would have been great – and ensured we never got too caught up with the lives we were hearing about.

Director Joe Malyan had a small amount of stage and a lot of props to play with and, on the whole, did so effectively, though a couple of times, the limited size of the performing area hampered Auriole Wells’ choreography and led to minor prangs as the performers passed each other. But this was easy to forgive, and I’m sure a larger stage would easily remedy this. Costumes were, on the whole, very era-appropriate. However, anyone that knows me is aware I am a stickler for uniforms and some of the uniforms didn’t match the characters – for example, RAF officer hats never had a shiny peak, that was non-commissioned ranks only.

Overall, I did enjoy Their Finest Hour. At no point did the show try to glorify war, in fact, it portrayed wartime life, and death, warts and all. Nor did it gloss over some of the things that happened that, when looked at with twenty-first-century eyes, would be frowned upon. Instead, what we had were real tales of real people, reminding us that while we may look back on that period and see wall-to-wall heroes, they were all individuals with the same hopes, dreams, and fears as everyone else, and this production does well to bring their humanity back into focus.

4 stars

Review by Terry Eastham

Their Finest Hour presents the story of the men and women who served with the Royal Air Force during the Second World War.

​It’s the day of Bert’s funeral, an RAF veteran of the Second World War. His family have gathered at his home for his last farewell, when they discover an old suitcase full of memorabilia in his attic. There’s a photo. ‘Me and Jamie, a bit worse for wear after a night out in London.’ ‘That was a night to remember. I’ll say no more. Within 24 hours of that picture we were over Germany again.’

A completely new theatre piece, told through the words and eyes of those who were there, it is a truly unique and immersive verbatim production, with a cast playing over 100 characters. Featuring 1940s music and songs, poetry, and gripping story-telling, this stylish performance brings an emotive and significant part of our history to life.

Written by Steve Darlow.
Directed by Joe Malyan.
Produced by Steve Darlow and Auriole Wells.

8 – 26 March 2023
Fighting HIgh & For George Productions present
Their Finest Hour
by Steve Darlow.

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