Sleepers in the Field review – witty wartime drama without the heroics

The Questors, London
A deliberately unromantic view of the second world war as experienced by one family provides an antidote to current idealised versions on screen

Defying expectation … Lisa Varty, Claudia Carroll and David Sellar in Sleepers in the Field.
Photograph: Peter Collins

This play by the late, much-admired Peter Whelan, written in 2009 but only now getting its premiere, could hardly come at a better time. As idealised versions of our wartime past dominate cinema screens, Whelan comes up with an honest, truthful account of the mixed reactions of the British people to global conflict and scotches the myth that everyone in the second world war behaved with impeccable heroism.

Whelan’s focus is on a Midlands working-class family in 1941 and, in particular, on daughter Marion. She joins the women’s army, becomes a skilled member of an anti-aircraft unit but is furious that she is confined to identifying enemy planes rather than shooting them down. Marion’s life becomes even more complicated when she falls in love with an introverted captain tormented by the idea that civilians are being wantonly sacrificed to the Luftwaffe. That, however, is only one example of the way Whelan’s people defy expectation. Marion’s dad despises Churchill and constantly rakes up his peacetime record, her antisemitic mum treats a Czech refugee with calculated coldness and a profiteering neighbour makes a tidy sum out of the scrap-metal trade.

The story takes time to get going and Whelan never makes enough of the point that Brits themselves, through appeasement, helped to create the fascist monsters they are fighting.

But Whelan writes with wit, as when a character remarks of Marion’s absentee lover, “Other ranks desert, officers are overdue.” As he showed in his study of a group of Lancashire lads who enlisted in the first world war, The Accrington Pals, Whelan also has the rare capacity to write about working-class people without either sentimentalising or patronising them.

John Davey’s production for this enterprising west London amateur theatre, with which Whelan was involved for half a century, is alive to every nuance of this deliberately unromantic drama and is exceptionally well acted by Claudia Carroll as the strong-minded Marion, Felix Grainger as her tormented lover and Robin Ingram as a sadly silent, bounced Czech.

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