Written by Three of a Kind (Doc Andersen-Bloomfield, Catherine Comfort and Heather Dunmore)
Directed by Adam Hemming
Produced by Grace Chapman
2 – 6 July 2019
Attaboys. That was the affectionate name given to pilots of the ATA, the Air Transport Auxiliary, a civilian organisation set up during World War II to ferry aircraft between factories and military sites, thereby freeing up RAF pilots for front line service. Except that many of the “boys” were women, who joined because, unlike with the RAF, they could be accepted into the ATA regardless of gender, age or disabilities.
Spitfire Sisters tells the as-yet little-known stories of several of these women, following their daily lives at the airbase, awaiting their assignments under the constant threat of air raids, doing their best to live in a country torn by war. It follows a year in their lives during the war as they navigate their way through a society where they were not only largely invisible, but also actively put in harm’s way: women were only allowed to fly if they did so without instruments. Considered too unskilled to learn how to use the same tools as men, they were given a compass and a map, and nothing else.
The background of the fight for gender equality, with women dealing with the same problems and dangers as their male counterparts while having to prove their worth every step of the way, is unfortunately a familiar one to this day. The struggle is depressingly real, and so are the women’s attitudes towards it, from unwavering dedication to the cause, to complete indifference, to casual interest, to a resigned acceptance of their status.
The script shines in how it portrays the diversity of voices and backgrounds of these women, who joined out of a need to find freedom from social constraints, to prove their self-worth to themselves and others, to follow a bright-eyed fascination with machines, to flee a home that had no place for them, to create a better life for themselves, to fight for their country and find closure to the traumas of the war.
Their love of flying is the common ground, as all-encompassing as the rumble of the Merlin engines. The top notch quality of the cast, who are absolutely believable in their individual portrayals and in their relationships to one another, brings this to the foreground, and ties the otherwise loose story together. The scenes when all the women are together, either celebrating rare moments of respite or mourning yet another unthinkable loss, felt genuinely joyous and/or heart-wrenching. Every emotion here is layered, from blind devotion and self-sacrifice, to self preservation and independence, carefree affection, quarrels and rivalries between friends, lovers, colleagues, superiors. Mary Roubos stands out as the vivacious Georgia, while Chloe Wade’s Jessie combines fierce determination with genuine compassion.
Unfortunately, the powerful moments make the less effective parts of the script conspicuous in comparison. The scenes featuring the only male character felt particularly weak, his coarse manner and outbursts a jarring contrast to the women’s nuanced portrayals. Perhaps this was on purpose, but it felt unnecessary. Finally, the aesthetic choice of having the cast smoke on stage may have helped to create an accurate atmosphere, but it made my head and lungs ache as much as the poignant scenes made my heart ache. I didn’t notice any warning in the programme about this involuntary audience immersion, and it is something that should be flagged for future performances, for asthmatics and non-smokers like myself.
Ultimately, these are stories that deserve to be known, told in a way that shows genuine care and enthusiasm for the source material. Take it from a female aviation enthusiast who grew up being told that women don’t have what it takes to become pilots! However, even if you don’t fall in love with the sound of an engine, you will find something here to delight you.
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